By Pat Launer
Millie gets a Push while digging for gold
And in Copenhagen , memories slowly unfold.
THE SHOW: COPENHAGEN , Michael Frayn’s Tony Award-winning drama (Best Play, 2000)
THE STORYBACKSTORY: Frayn is best known as the creator of one of the funniest backstage farces ever written (Noises Off), and his novels (“Headlong,” for example) are amusing and engaging, too. But Copenhagen is a whole other thing.
Based on fact, and on the 1993 book, “Heisenberg’s War: The Secret History of the German bomb,” by Thomas Powers, the play concerns a clandestine meeting, at the height of WWII. It was 1941, and Denmark was under Nazi occupation. German physicist Werner Heisenberg made a furtive, dangerous visit to his former mentor, Danish physicist Niels Bohr. They’d had a close relationship, but they were on opposite sides of the war, engaged in the deadly race to develop an atomic bomb. No one ever knew what was discussed in the meeting of those two brilliant, Nobel-winning minds, but it’s been the subject of speculation for the past 65 years. And how different our history would be if the Germans had been successful in their pursuit. Perhaps that was what Heisenberg came to chat about. Perhaps it was something more sanguine – or more nefarious. The play actually prompted the Bohr family to release, in 2002, drafts of unsent letters written to Heisenberg 16 years after the 1941 visit. They seemed to suggest that Heisenberg was well aware of the details of nuclear fission, not, as the play intimates, that he made a massive mathematical miscalculation. But can memory be trusted? That’s a major question embedded in the play. The primary metaphor is Uncertainty, which is the name of the seminal Principle that was one of Heisenberg’s greatest contributions to physics. As Frayn puts it in his postscript to the text, we can never know the true motivation of others. “The only way we have of entering the mind of another,” he says, “is through the imagination.”
So, that’s where Frayn takes off. When we meet the three characters in his stimulating, thought-provoking drama, they’re all dead. Ghosts. But they’re still dealing with the question of exactly why Heisenberg made that fateful visit. Detailed memories of the encounter fail them. They can’t quite agree. So they replay the events repeatedly, circling around the issues and questions and uncertainties. The co-existing possibilities are virtually limitless. Perhaps Heisenberg wanted to find out how far the Allies had come in developing the bomb. Or maybe he deliberately failed in his bomb-making efforts, so that Germany wouldn’t win the war (though the fact is that he was staunchly nationalistic, and his wife was an active member of the Nazi Party). Or was it that he erred grossly with the equation? Could he have been trying to get Bohr to join him on the ‘other side?’ Or to convince him that benevolently, he was doing everything he could, behind the scenes, to protect his half-Jewish teacher/colleague (though all the other Jewish scientists were losing their positions, and worse). Perhaps he just wanted advice. Or maybe it was absolution. The discussion gets deep and emotional and scientifically intense. Frayn uses a crafty theatrical trick: he has the men simplify the science for the benefit of Bohr’s wife, Margrethe (though she was actually quite knowledgeable, being the typist and sometime editor of her husband’s work). Structurally and contentively, the play is swirls like three electrons inside an atom, bouncing off each other and colliding. Margrethe is the skeptic and commentator, a kind of Greek chorus, telling the audience what to look at, what to contemplate. She often provides the ballast and focus in these highly charged interactions.
THE PLAYERS/PRODUCTION: The play depends a great deal on the attention, intelligence and imagination of the audience. It opens on a bare stage with three chairs, surrounded by chalkboards brimming with mathematical equations (set design by Sean Murray). Before we meet the protagonists, we hear the stomach-churning goose-stepping of Gestapo boots, and the chilling ” Seig Heil!” ( excellent , evocative, but not intrusive sound design by director George Yé). Then, bathed in subtle light (outstanding lighting design by Eric Lotze), a provocative triangulated tableau. Jim Chovick is formidable and imposing as Bohr (but he struggled with the dense disquisitions at times on opening night); he totally nails the emotional temperature of the methodical, contemplative physicist (who, truth be told, would be rather unlikely to mispronounce ‘nuclear’ as ‘nucular,’ the way some Presidents do). Rosina Reynolds gives a fine-tuned, superbly calibrated performance, achieving the perfect Scandinavian reserve, asking the really tough questions and serving as the voice of reason, doubt and candor, while showing her soft side when it comes to mention of her poor drowned son, a topic that surfaces repeatedly, and nags at each of the characters. It’s the father-son relationship, real and imagined, that courses through the play, that makes Bohr forgiving and Heisenberg conciliatory. As that brash and impetuous younger man, Joshua Everett Johnson gives a thrilling performance. He is by turns aggressive and fearful, showing an astonishing range of emotional color. And he handles the complexity of his dialogue as if he were born into it. A mesmerizing demonstration of skill. Yé also does his best work here, keeping the focus tight, but letting the characters circle around each other, both literally and figuratively, in an ever-narrowing orbit. Jeanne Reith’s muted costume palette is ideal for the era and these un-flashy characters. The meeting of these minds affected the fabric and future of our society. If you’re a student of history or science, or just a lover of good, solid theater, you won’t miss this stellar production.
THE LOCATION: Cygnet Theatre, through September 10
THE SHOW: THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE, the musicalized version of the witless 1967 movie. When the show premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2000, it became the stuff of legend: the star was let go, the understudy (Sutton Foster) stepped in and in true Broadway fantasy fashion, she went on to win a Tony Award.
THE STORY : The show is a frothy confection that’s trying to masquerade as a play with profundity and ‘social issues.’ Though it touches on the white-slave trade in early 20th century New York and the plight of immigrants, it’s also incredibly insensitive about those self-same immigrants. It centers, unappealingly enough, on a hick who comes to the Big City determined to be ‘a modern,’ a strong, forthright woman who knows and does what she wants – which is to say, dig for gold, with a capital G. Bob your hair, find a job, and marry your wealthy boss. That’s the Millie Dillmount credo. Of course, things don’t work out that way. Well, sort of. She falls for a poor slob, and marries for love. But the guy turns out to be a gazillionaire, whose mother seems perfectly happy with his unlikely catch, and with the match of her daughter (also masquerading as a stray) who winds up with the Chinese immigrant. Can you spell improbable — with a capital I? The few original songs were written by XXx and XXX, with additional numbers added by Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlon. It’s unlikely that folks will be singing these songs fifty years hence. In fact, (like the Grinch), you walk out humming the one tune you knew from the film (in this case, the title song). But there are some cute numbers and the Moonlight production has, as usual, pulled out all the stops to make the evening a delight, even if the show is mindlessly mediocre.
THE PLAYERS/PRODUCTION : Kirby Ward was an outstanding choice as director/choreographer. He brings a lot of pizzazz to the dance numbers, some newly infused, others staged pretty much like they were done in La Jolla . The corps of dancers is excellent, too, and the singing is wonderful throughout (musical direction by Terry O’Donnell). The (rented) costumes are stunning – all those bright colors and cute little flapper dresses (though Dorothy’s dresses are no longer than Millie’s, and a point is made of that comparison several times in the script). As Millie, cute Kristen Beth Williams is a perky redhead with a big smile, brimming with energy and triple-threat talent. But she isn’t a show-stopper. Her 11 o’clock number, “Gimme, Gimme,” is fine, but not killer (that song alone could have catapulted Sutton Foster to Broadway). But she has a charming, credible connection with thoroughly likable, sweet-voiced Robert Pieranunzi as Jimmy. Diane Vincent is funny and aptly overblown as the malevolent Mrs. Meers. Debbie Prutsman sings well as the compassionate and super-rich star, Muzzy van Hossmere, but she isn’t quite luminous enough (Carol Channing went hog-wild with that role in the film). The show is nearly stolen when the lush baritone of funny poseur Randall Dodge, as the silly, supercilious boss, meets the golden-voice of Sarah Elizabeth Combs as Miss Dorothy Brown. Their second-act duet, “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life/I’m Falling in Love with Someone” is flat-out hilarious, by far the strongest number in the show. Also very well done are “The Speed Test,” a clever riff on a Gilbert and Sullivan patter-song, whipped out at ever-increasing velocity by a bemused Dodge, and the all-female typing-pool anthem of sisterly advice (unheeded by all), “Forget About the Boy.” SDSU alum Caleb Goh works wonders with the thankless, stereotypic role of Ching Ho, and with his brother, played by Charles Hand, their rendition of the Chinese comic song, “Muqin,” is a hoot. The 17-piece orchestra (under O’Donnell’s direction), provides robust musical support, and the sound system/design, under the aegis of the ever-reliable M. Scott Grabau, is thankfully first-rate. The (rented) sets may change a bit too frequently, but they thankfully manage not to be annoying, as has become de rigueur at some of our larger theaters. Ward keeps the action high-spirited and sprightly. And yet, with its endless, pointless machinations, the show tends to sag at times. The Moonlight effort, however, is delightful. Get your last licks of summer, in yet another enjoyable evening under the Vista stars.
THE LOCATION: Moonlight Amphitheatre, through September 3
WHEN PUSH COMES TO SHOVE…
THE SHOW: PUSH, by Kristen Lazerian, the first play up in the 14th annual Fritz Blitz of New Plays by California Playwrights, proved a tantalizing opener.
THE STORY: It’s all about fidelity, and whether men are incapable of it. Of course, it takes two to tango; the skewed contention is made insistently, though these women are hardly faultless or flawless. The most interesting thing about this comedy is its structure; scenes from act one are replayed in act two, with additional context. We see what followed the moments we viewed earlier, and that provides a whole new perspective on the action and interactions. It’s a fascinating device, and it makes for some delicious plot twists. Lazerian has an excellent ear for contemporary dialogue, and she has a good sense of how the upscale and the sexes operate. But this particular turf has been trod before: two wealthy couples with high-end jobs, meeting at a chichi restaurant, talking idly about the differences between men and women, putting their marriages to the test. But how the story plays out and how the director finesses it are the real delights.
THE PLAYERS/PRODUCTION: The beautiful-looking cast, which included two last-minute replacements, was excellent. It was great to see real-life couple Anahid Shahrik and Landon Vaughn playing a husband and wife, with Brennan Taylor and talented San Diego returnee Shondra Mirelle (hot off the plane from New York) as the loving couple, Owen and Brooke, and Tim Schubert as a German bad-boy/artist who provides a temptation for Brooke, while Sonya Bender, who just turned 17, put in another outstanding performance as an unsavory, unethical, but very alluring young woman. All were quite believable in their roles. Katie Rodda made a welcome return to the stage, but she played a seemingly unnecessary character in an undeveloped side-story about Brooke’s father. Robert May directed with a sure hand and a light comic touch. The ending was disturbing, as were some of the marital issues raised.
THE LOCATION: The Lyceum Theatre; each week a different program (3 more to go), through September 17
NOTE: Introducing the 14th annual Blitz, artistic director Duane Daniels was as funny as ever. But he also had something serious to say. The fourth program, intended to be Isaac, I Am, by Mary Steelsmith, has been canceled. There will be a replacement, but the situation is a little troubling. Apparently, the play was picked up for a full production elsewhere, presumably for considerably more remuneration, and the playwright pulled the rights. This isn’t the most ethical way to go; perhaps she could have called the other opening the ‘ Midwest premiere’ or finessed it in some other way. The playwright is offering another script, but still… The cast was already in rehearsal, and raring to go. And Daniels had picked this script from among his 75 submissions. It smacks of Hollywood , and isn’t the kind of thing you like to hear about in the theater. Of course, it happens, but it’s unpleasant all the same.
Daniels also announced that on the Blitz’s closing night, he’ll be presenting a Pay What You Can performance of his very funny comedy duo, Dane and Duane, the Only Thing Missing is U. This will be a benefit for the Fritz Theatre . Sunday, September 17.
NEW PLAYS AND PIRATES
What a treat! Witnessing the birth of a new Greek translation by an eminent theater professor and hearing a freshly minted short story, penned by one of the world’s greatest storytellers. Seeing classics scholar Marianne McDonald and acclaimed South African playwright Athol Fugard in action was indescribable. The evening, a benefit for 6th @ Penn Theatre, was entitled Medea: The Beginning/ Jason: The End. McDonald (with help from Fugard, playing all the male roles) read excerpts from her latest work-in-progress, a translation of Euripides’ Medea (written in 431 B.C.), which will receive a full production next year at 6th @ Penn, where she’s resident playwright. She introduced the evening saying, “If Antigone was the first freedom fighter, then Medea was the first terrorist.” She admitted that Medea, a powerful woman who fights back, had always been her heroine. But then, McDonald lost her 15 year-old daughter, and she’s begun to question whether violent vengeance is ever justified. Like all her translations and adaptations, the story is clear and accessible, the language modern and comprehensible. Then Fugard read his fanciful creation of the sequel: what happens to Jason after Medea exacts her murderous revenge and leaves him bereft, sans children, old wife, new wife and new father-in-law. It’s a delightful story that has him emaciated, destitute, chastened, near death, but still capable of a small ray of hope. Lovely pieces, lovely evening.
Ahoy, Mateys! Boy, did you miss some fun! The MOXIE Theatre “Surrender Yer Booty” pirate-themed fundraiser, aboard the HMS Surprise, a tall ship docked next to The Star of the Sea, was a blast! Most guests dressed for the occasion (John and me, included), and the Moxie-gals showed scenes from their upcoming season, which includes a play about a female pirate. Those Moxies, they are sooo au courant: Not only in tune with the “Pirates of the Caribbean ” franchise, but even with Broadway. Did they know that the Tony-winning creators of Les Miz and the producers of Riverdance have teamed up to mount a new musical called The Pirate Queen?? The world premiere is Oct. 3 in Chicago , and NYC probably won’t be far behind. But meanwhile, back in Moxie-land, the second season opens with Wet, or Isabella the Pirate Queen Enters the Horse Latitudes. Written by Liz Duffy Adams ,the same witty, inventive playwright who gave us (and Moxie) Dog Act, the show runs at the Lyceum, Nov. 19-Dec. 10. And from Dec. 15-23, a Moxie holiday treat will feature plays written especially for the company. Moxie-mania rules!
NEWS AND VIEWS
…In the midst of the Fritz Blitz, a blast from the past. The former artistic director of the Fritz Theater , Bryan Bevell, is making waves in the Midwest . He’s directing, once again, Gangster No. 1, a brutal and brutally funny play written by the creators of the film “Sexy Beast” (Louis Mellis and David Scinto) at The Playwright’s Center in Minneapolis (9/8-23). In 1999, he presented a mind-boggling reading and then a dazzling production of the play, which garnered an Outstanding Performance Patté Award for Ron Choularton. In my review, I described Bryan ’s direction as “outstanding in its understatement.” Presumably, that’s still how he’s doing the dark play. And hopefully, audiences will be as stunned and smitten (and unnerved) as they were in San Diego . Since moving to Minnesota in 2002, Bryan has directed for a range of theaters (The Jungle, Hardcover, Illusion and Crabapple – very imaginative names, you’ve gotta admit).
.. Speaking of moving on, David Wiener is covering some turf with his play, An Honest Arrangement. Now the Cedar Lane Stage in Bethesda , MD , has submitted the piece to the Maryland One-Act Festival. The play, which premiered in San Diego last year, won Best Play at the 12th Annual New York City 15-Minute Playwriting Festival early in 2006. Honest (and impressive) arrangements, indeed.
… Another local playwright, Dee Brooks, is premiering (and producing) her latest creation, Memories of Best Friends,” about black and white girls who are best friends in childhood, but enemies as adults. Friday Sept. 15 (7:30pm) and Sunday Sept. 17 (3pm) only, at the City Heights Performance Annex Theatre, 3795 Fairmount Ave. SD 92105 . The play will be directed by Forrest Aylsworth, who’s given us provocative productions of Ajax , A Skull in Connemara and Stuff Happens.
.. Penn-News… 6th @ Penn is planning an annual event called “Resilience of the Spirit: A 6th @ Penn Human Rights Playwright Festival,” to be headed up by new Board member Catherine Kinneavy, an SDSU alum and adjunct instructor at Grossmont College who’s a poet, writer, and multimedia performance artist with experience as a legal assistant, literary agent assistant, legislative intern and subsidiary rights contract manager. That’s some array of creds! The newly planned Festival (no dates yet) will be supported (though not funded) by Survivors of Torture International and the Museum of Human Rights , San Diego .
… The Far Side is back! Well, The Far Side of Fifty, anyway. The show, created and produced by my sister, Lonnie Burstein Hewitt, features words of wonder, wisdom and humor from 14 women, age 58-88 (my mother’s the 88), and it’s sold out every performance since it premiered last November. Now the group is giving something back to other women. The September 30 (2pm) performance at the Avo Playhouse in Vista, is a fundraiser for Operation HOPE, an emergency shelter for homeless families in North County . On November 12, the ensemble performs in the Garfield Theatre of the La Jolla JCC, to benefit the micro-credit programs of the Foundation for Women. “As older women,” says Hewitt, “we believe in supporting each other. We’re gatherers, and gathering together strengthens us all.” So gather your friends and support women needier than you. For the Avo performance: 760-724-2110 or vistixonline.com; for the JCC appearance, contact Hewitt at email@example.com.
…Life is a Cabaret… The delightful song stylist, Devlin, is back from her Excellent Adventure, nine days of “intense, life-changing work” at the Yale Cabaret Conference. She trained with Amanda McBroom (performer and acclaimed writer of the hit song, “The Rose,” and the musical Heartbeats), Laurel Masse (an original Manhattan Transfer member; see picture) and Sharon McNight, whom Devlin describes as “one of the hardest directors I’ve ever worked with, who has comic timing like Lucille Ball.” Devlin heads back to NY in October, where she’ll spend time with music director/arranged Rick Jensen and take a cabaret workshop with Lina Koutrakos. With all this training, we only hope she’ll continue to come back to San Diego , to show us what she’s learned.
… New production, New Vision: New Vision Theatre Company and the Sunshine Brooks Theatre in Oceanside present Daddy’s Dyin,’ Who’s Got the Will?’ by Del Shores (Sordid Lives, Southern Baptist Sissies, “Queer as Folk” writer/co-exec producer). The opening, Sept.29, is followed by a gala hosted by the Oceanside Civitan Club. The show runs through Oct. 22. 760-529-9140, www.nvtheatre.com .
…Increase your dramatic wardrobe… The Old Globe is having a Costume and Prop Sale. Check out the hand-made clothes that were designed by the likes of Robert Blackman, Robert Morgan, Robert Wojewodski, Lewis Brown and Linda Cho, and worn at the Globe by Mary Louise Parker, Cynthia Nixon, Dana Delaney, Mariette Hartley, John Goodman and Billy Campbell. Slip into something comfortable .. or pick up some props and furniture from recent Globe shows. Saturday, Oct. 14, from 8:00am-2:00pm. For info, visit www.theoldglobe.org .
CELEBRITY APPEARANCES… Start saving up now:
…LeAnn Rimes , the pre-pre-teen who became Country’s Queen of Crossover, now a pop-country diva, will appear at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido on Sept. 22. She’s sold over 37 million records; maybe she’ll sell out the Center. And she’s still only 23! For tix and info: 800-988-4253; www.artcenter.org .
…And closer to (theater) home, the heartthrob of Broadway (and my own personal musical-theater heartthrob; can I actually be alluding to Johnny Depp and BSM in one column??), Tony Award-winner Brian Stokes Mitchell, who got his start at San Diego Junior Theatre, shows that he doesn’t forget ‘the little people.’ At the Casa del Prado Theatre in Balboa Park , where Junior Theatre performs, he’ll host a benefit concert and also a private dinner for 20 at Bertrand at Mister A’s – all to benefit JT and its arts education programming. ‘Stokes’ is known for his beautiful, heartbreaking baritone, and award-winning performances in Ragtime, Kiss Me, Kate, Man of La Mancha, Kiss of the Spiderwoman and August Wilson’s King Hedley II. His latest venture is his self-titled CD, from which he’ll probably sample. For tix and info: 619-239-8355; www.juniortheatre.com .
… Another one-night visitor is Broadway veteran Ken Page (from the Broadway productions of Cats, The Wiz, Ain’t Misbehavin’ and he’s appeared locally as The Lord in Randy Newman’s Faust at the La Jolla Playhouse and Old Max in the Globe’s Grinch). He kicks off the 2006-2007 season at the Poway Center for the Performing Arts with his solo show, called “Page by Page,” recounting his stage/Broadway career. Sept. 30. 858-748-0505; www.powayarts.org.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Critic’s Picks)
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Thoroughly Modern Millie – delightful production (great singing and dancing!) of a less-than-stellar musical
Moonlight Amphitheatre, through Sept. 2
Copenhagen – deep, profound, important and impeccably acted
Cygnet Theatre, through September 24.
Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit – hilarious spoofs, now featuring an all-San Diego cast (all alums of the SDSU MFA program in musical theatre). Get ‘em while they’re hot!
At the Theatre in Old Town , ongoing
Lincolnesque – provocative, political and sure to get you thinking; excellently performed
On the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through September 10
Little Eyolf – a lesser-known play by Ibsen, with dark underpinnings and some highly emotional moments; an auspicious beginning for the new Tonic Productions
At 6th @ Penn, through September 10
all wear bowlers – if you love physical comedy and new vaudeville clowning, you’ll adore these two talented wackos
La Jolla Playhouse, through September 3
Titus Andronicus – a lot of political references and many laughs along with the gore; as director Darko Tresnjak puts it, his production is “bloody good fun!” It’s inventive and terrific
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through September 30
Othello – potent production. robustly acted and directed
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through October 1
You may be back to school means you can still take a break — and get Back to the theater.
© 2006 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.