By Pat Launer
No matter the season (beggin’ yer pardon):
You might get Hay Fever in The Secret Garden
THE SHOW: Hay Fever, a 1925 comedy of manners by the inimitable mocker of manners, Noël Coward
THE BACKSTORY: Written in just three days, when the playwright was a mere 24, the play was inspired by an unforgettable 1921 visit to the New York home of Broadway star Laurette Taylor. Coward later wrote: “On Sunday evenings we had cold supper and 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 or an historical personage with proper abandon.” Every one of these elements and personality types made its way into the play; Taylor reportedly disavowed any similarity to her family, quipping “None of us is ever unintentionally rude.”
THE STORY: The comedy is set in the 1920s, in the English country home of the arty, eccentric Bliss family. Each screwy, unconventional family member has invited a guest for the weekend: a stodgy diplomat; a shy flapper; an athletic boxer; and a fashionable sophisticate. They’re no match for the wacky, self-absorbed Blisses , who thrive on high drama and undermine others for the sheer thrill of it. The histrionics overwhelm the visitors, as do the random pairings and impulsive, hyperbolic and bogus protestations of undying love. There isn’t much plot in the proceedings, but there are many farcical exits and entrances, and there is, as frequently occurs in Coward plays, a sharp distinction drawn between bourgeois, repressive conventionality and outrageous (sometimes scandalous) Bohemian idiosyncrasy. Neither group is sympathetic, and while the family is crazy, funny and often amusingly over-the-top, they are also loud, bullying and casually cruel. We can certainly identify with the harried and harassed visitors who can’t wait to escape to silence and sanity, but they’re so vapid and boring, we wouldn’t want to spend a weekend with them, either.
THE PLAYERS /THE PRODUCTION: The play is decidedly tricky to get right. Rather than the witty epigrams of Oscar Wilde, or even the clever public pronouncements of Coward himself, the language relies on ordinary conversation to make its comedic impact; context – and comic timing — are everything. As Coward wrote in 1934, “Hay Fever is considered by many to be my best comedy. From a professional standpoint, [it’s] far and away one of the most difficult plays to perform… To begin with, it has no plot at all, and remarkably little action. Its general effectiveness therefore depends upon expert technique from each and every member of the cast.”
Fortunately for Moonlight and its audiences, guest director Eric Bishop, a professor of theater at Mira Costa College , has assembled a terrific ensemble, and put them through their paces at an aptly frantic pace. The stage business is inventive and comical. Most important, the timing is spot-on. Every line lands on target; the wackiness is exaggerated but not too extreme. And everyone seems to be having a blast: from Dagmar K. Fields as the melodramatic actress-mother to Charlie Riendeau as the self-absorbed novelist/father; handsome Thomas Hall as their artist son and San Diego newcomer Aimee Janelle Nelson as the capricious, impetuous daughter. Li-Anne Rowswell is aptly churlish as the surly maid. Nathan Venzara , Terri Park, Sean Vernon and Summer Spiro create finely etched secondary characters (the guests), each put on the line and off their game by the flaky family. Marty Burnett’s set is attractive, but not as arty or outrageous as one might expect of this crazy clan. Roslyn Lehman’s costumes are stunning, with hats and suits and colorful frocks that scream character definition. All in all, this is a delicious romp, delectably done.
THE LOCATION: Moonlight at the Avo, through February 18
A BIT OF EARTH
THE SHOW: The Secret Garden , a musical adaptation of the classic 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, with music by Lucy Simon and book/lyrics by playwright Marsha Norman. The 1991 show was last produced by the Lamb’s Players in 1998
THE STORY: Set in 1907, Burnett’s classic has elements of a fairy tale, with ghostly apparitions, anthropomorphic animals, miraculous transformations and a happy ending. Mary Lennox starts out as a spoiled, self-centered child, orphaned by a cholera outbreak in India . She’s forced to live with her only relatives: a sour, brooding , , distracted, hunchbacked uncle and his younger doctor-brother, the seemingly devoted caretaker of the invalid Colin, whose mother died ten years ago in childbirth. Mary is a hellion until she discovers her dead Aunt Lily’s beloved garden. Then she embarks on a journey of self-discovery that helps her long-grieving uncle and her sickly cousin open the door to happiness. The revitalization of the neglected garden is a metaphor for going back to one’s roots, clearing away debris, nurturing new growth, and cultivating beauty even in the harshest environment. When Mary finds the key to the garden, she unlocks everyone’s heart, and helps them all to heal.
THE PLAYERS /THE PRODUCTION: The most outstanding element of the production is the voices. Some of San Diego ’s finest singers grace the cast, and shepherded by musical director G. Scott Lacy, they really deliver this complex and sometimes musically thorny score. As the long-dead Lily, Deborah Gilmour Smyth displays her scintillating soprano. And as her still grieving, hunchbacked widower, Archibald, David S. Humphrey brings anguish underlain by a good deal of heart. Unfortunately, there’s an inexplicable age discrepancy between them (she’s been dead for quite a while, but he looks younger), and there isn’t any palpable heat or passion between them, though she has haunted him for years. So when they sing one of the show’s most beautiful, heartrending songs, “How Could I Ever Know ?, ” we aren’t stirred or moved. The duet that nearly steals the show is the lush “Lily’s Eyes,” where the competitive brothers lament their (secretly shared) lost love. Here, the rich baritone of Randall Dodge (the envious and nefarious Neville) proves the perfect counterpart to Humphrey’s sweet tenor tones.
Season Duffy provides excellent comic relief as the feisty Martha; Jon Lorenz isn’t as magical as he should be as her brother, the enchanted Dickon. Doren Elias is solid as crusty but good-hearted Ben Weatherstaff , the gardener; Carlos Mendoza and Bathsheba Wilson, with their beautifully graceful hands, are suitably otherworldly as The Fakir and the Ayah. The chorus of ghosts is wonderful; the attractive and talented ensemble includes Nick Spear, Rebecca Spear, Lance Arthur Smith, and Lamb’s regulars Colleen Kollar , Kerry Meads, and set designer Mike Buckley, making a welcome return to the stage. But they’re made to traipse up and down the stairs repeatedly in the less-than-evocative set. The suspended mini-mansion is appealing, and the scrims are used to good effect, thanks to Nathan Pierson’s lighting, but this doesn’t seem like a dark, foreboding castle. The kids, Allie Trimm as Mary and Austyn Myers her cousin Colin, are cute and talented but not show-stopping. As directed by Robert Smyth, this Mary isn’t half as bratty as she should be at the outset. (Colin seems far more spoiled, though they should be equally churlish and contrary). This gives Mary much less of a dramatic arc; she doesn’t seem to change all that much, except for a little sullenness, from the time she arrives at Misselthwaite Manor, to the time she transforms everyone in it. Overall, it’s the magic that’s missing, though this is a perfectly respectable and attractively attired production (the flowing white silks of the ghostly women are particularly eye-catching, courtesy of costumer Jeanne Reith). The five-piece band offers excellent accompaniment. It’s the melodious moments that triumph here, and that’s not a bad thing at all for a musical.
THE LOCATION: Lamb’s Players Theatre, through March 11
STATE OF THE ART
The Coronado School of the Arts has just unveiled its beautiful new theater, a lovely space with a 48-foot fly loft, an orchestra pit, substantial wing space, excellent acoustics and one of only two Vortek computerized and motorized stage systems in the county (the other is at Valley Center High School; there are many such systems in Las Vegas venues). The attractive and comfortable house seats about 600. Directors and producers take note! When the school isn’t using it (primarily during the summer), the space will be available for rent!
NEWS AND VIEWS
… Too many things, too little time: There’s just too much good stuff happening on Tuesday, Feb. 13.
..The San Diego Jewish Film Festival is showing “Wrestling with Angels,” a documentary about playwright Tony (Angels in America ) Kushner, 7:30pm at AMC La Jolla.
..On the same night, the La Jolla Playhouse opens its newest Page to Stage presentation (no critical reviews allowed): The Farnsworth Invention¸ written by Aaron Sorkin , creator of “West Wing” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” and directed by Des McAnuff, his final work at the Playhouse before he moves on to the SD Opera ( Wozzeck , opening in April) and other pursuits. The workshop production runs through March 25.
..And ALSO on that night (I so often wish I could be at multiple places at once) is Sushi’s fifth installment of “4 x 4,” a monthly series of performances by emerging and established local dancers/choreographers and other performers. This week’s offerings look particularly yummy, and include work by: Traves Butterworth, danced by Rayna Stohl ; Kevin Godfrey; Bradley Lundberg; Pat Rincon, danced by Deven Brawley; Tsofia Gal; Puppet Insurgency; and tapper Claudia Vorce with percussionist Toby Ahrens (featured in Thursday’s U-T). Whatta lineup! The series is curated by Liam Clancy and is designed to showcase new or in-progress works in a casual social setting – Bluefoot Bar/Lounge at 30th & Upas in North Park . The intriguing concept is that all pieces are performed on a 4’ x 4’ stage, and limited to ten minutes. Be there, the second Tuesday of every month, at 8pm.
… Speaking of talented Traves Butterworth, I had lunch with him the other day, to catch up on his creative doings. He’s deeply involved in choreographing his April 13-14 Butterworth Dance presentation at the La Jolla JCC. For the first time, he’s presenting a political piece, about the Iraq war. Traves is delightful, and his modern dance work is wonderful. Check it out next week and in April…
.. and staying on your toes… consider Dances of Time, a world premiere by Jean Isaacs San Diego Dance Theater in collaboration with the 80-member Grossmont College Orchestra Women’s Chorale and the College’s Afro-Cuban Ensemble. The piece, set to music by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins, is a celebration of dance through the centuries, including the pavane , minuet, waltz, ragtime, swing and Latin American moves. The Chorale will perform jazz vocals that are similar to scat singing. Feb. 25 only, 3 and 7pm at the East County Performing Arts Center. www.sandiegodancetheater.org.
…Newly homeless, it seems, Eveoke Dance Theatre remains undaunted. Their current production of Luna – Dances of Love, takes place in private homes around the county, as well as at their downtown studio (Feb. 17-18, 644 7th Avenue). Eveoke founder/choreographer Gina Angelique continues to step in for the injured Nikki Dunnan. The program runs through Feb. 25. www.eveoke.org
… Up at Moonlight this Monday, 2/12, the second annual WordsWork playreading series at the Avo begins with Peter Shaffer’s Lettice and Lovage, starring Moonlight producing artistic director, Kathy Brombacher (recent Patté winner of a Shiley Lifetime Achievement Award), teamed up with Sandra Ellis-Troy, Melissa Fernandes and Jim Chovick, directed by Jim Caputo. Monday, Feb. 12 at 7:30pm.
…Do the V-D thing… at a reading of The Vagina Monologues. Among the many productions around town: OnStage Playhouse (Feb. 16-18), with proceeds benefiting Casas Seguras in Chula Vista ( www.onstageplayhouse.org ); and Patio Playhouse (Feb. 10-11), with proceeds going to the Center for Community Solutions in Escondido . Patio is also hosting a Lunafest fundraiser — a screening of short films by, for and about women. Sat. 2/10 at 2pm ( www.patioplayhouse.com )
…February is also Black History Month, and the Cygnet Theatre/ San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre collaboration is re-presenting two parts of the outstanding reading series of plays by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson. Check ‘em out at City Heights Performance Annex, one matinee performance only. Fences plays on Feb. 11 at 2pm and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom will be presented on Feb. 25 at 2pm. 619-641-6123. On Feb. 12, Fences will be performed at USD.
The next reading at Cygnet is the poetic Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, directed by Floyd Gaffney, with an all-star cast that includes Mark Broadnax and Monique Gaffney (currently sizzling in Cygnet’s Yellowman ); Antonio T.J. Johnson; Mark Christopher Lawrence; Sylvia M’lafi Thompson; Che Lyons, Yolanda Franklin; Ron Choularton; Joe Powers, and others. March 5, 6 and 13 at Cygnet. And on Monday, March 12, the production travels north to Moonlight’s Avo Theatre.
.. Another reading in honor of Black History Month is Passing Ceremonies at Diversionary Theatre. Written by North Carolina playwright Steve Willis and directed by Floyd Gaffney, the piece bridges the divide between Harlem Renaissance artist Richard Bruce Nugent (1906-1987) and modern poet Essex Hemphill (1957-1995). The performers will be Ozzie Carnan , Jr., Ernie McCray and Kalif Prince. Feb. 17-19 at Diversionary, part of the “Queer Theatre – Taking Center Stage” series.
… And speaking of bridges, writer/director Doug Hoehn is gearing up for the premiere of two of his one-acts, Fourth Street Bridge and Sea Change, to be presented on off-nights at 6th @ Penn Theatre under the umbrella title Bridges: Two Love Stories. The two unlikely and provocative love stories concern an Iraq war veteran and a man battling Alzheimer’s. Sunday-Wednesdays at 6th @ Penn, Feb. 18-March 7.
…Up in Vista , the funny couple becomes The Odd Couple. Founder/owners of Premiere Productions and the Broadway Theatre, partners Randall Hickman and Douglas Davis are teaming up onstage to play Oscar and Felix. They’re both pretty funny offstage; should be a hoot when they’re on. Feb. 15-March 25 at the Broadway Theatre, 340 E. Broadway, just around the corner from the Avo.
.. Calling all actors: 6th @ Penn is holding open auditions for its Resilience of the Spirit: Human Rights Festival 2007, which will take place throughout the month of July. Doug Lay will serve as artistic director of the Festival. Auditions are March 3 and 4; call 619-688-9210 for an appointment. For info about the Festival, go to www.resilienceofthespirit.com .
… Remember these names: The winners of the J* Company’s Project Centerstage : A Teen Musical Theatre Competition were announced last weekend to an SRO crowd at the La Jolla JCC’s Garfield Theatre. Fifteen finalists, chosen from auditions around San Diego county , were judged by a panel of experts from S.D., L.A. and N.Y. April Kilbourne , 15, a student at Rancho Bernardo High School , was the big winner, snagging a $1000 scholarship. Second and third places were taken by 17 year-old Dorothy Guthrie of Coronado High School and Cailene Kilcoyne , 17, from Torrey Pines High, who won $500 and $250, respectively. There’s already a buzz about next year’s competition; info will be posted soon at www.lfjcc.org/jcompany . Meanwhile, the J*Company is busy with its upcoming production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, directed by Joey Landwehr, March 9-25 at the JCC.
.. And on the college campuses:
..UCSD presents a world premiere workshop production (again no reviews) of Good Breeding, by Obie and Oppenheimer Award-winning playwright/director Robert O’Hara. The Greek Oresteia goes modern; the play features nudity, strong language, sexuality and violence. The Curse on the House of Atreus is just like HBO! Feb. 16-24 in the Mandell Weiss Theatre.
.. SDSU also turns a classic on its ear: The Bible. The first five books of the Old Testament get a good-natured ribbing in In the Beginning: The Greatest Story Never Told, a musical tribute to the ordinary, everyday people who didn’t make it into the Good Book. The score is by Maury Yeston, Tony Award-winning composer/lyricist of Nine, Grand Hotel, Titanic and my favorite version of the masked marauder, Phantom. Directed by Rick Simas. Feb. 16-25 in the Experimental Theatre.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
The Secret Garden – the singing trumps everything else; a vocally magical cast
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through March 11
Hay Fever – deliciously snarky comedy, superbly acted and attired
Moonlight at the Avo, through February 18
Yellowman – provocative play, marvelous design and direction, outstanding performances
At Cygnet Theatre, through February 11
Fiddler on the Roof – wonderful nostalgia, wonderfully sung
At the Welk Theatre, through April 1
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
In honor of the President’s birthday, drive your Lincoln to a local theater!
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.