By Pat Launer
Love in many guises – grief, and loss, too:
From “A Midsummer’s Night” to “Amy’s View,”
Stark reality to ‘Once Upons ,’
From Rapunzel’s story to the premiere, ‘Bronze.’
So what, you may ask, is “Amy’s View?” Well, it was once a young girl’s newsletter. But now it’s a philosophy of life – that love conquers all, that love expended will be requited. That love is all you need. Nice thought. But it didn’t work for John Lennon, and it doesn’t work for Amy Allen.
David Hare’s talky, often didactic play is really about the limits of love. But that’s not all. It also concerns mothers and daughters, the difficulty of ‘taking control’ of one’s life, the evils of arts criticism, the scarcity of women’s roles in theater, the conflict between the cinematic image and the theatrical word, the plundering of the individual by Big Business, the exploitation of women by overbearing men and the transformation of England’s ‘thatched cottage’ heritage into a veritable theme park. That’s a whole lotta issues. And the deck is unequivocally stacked. In Hare’s View, it’s really theater that conquers all, not love. In a world overtaken by artistic, financial and philosophical change (the play is set between 1979 and 1994), theater is something to fall back on, despite a lifetime of loss and pain. At least that’s what happens to Amy’s mother, the diva-actress Esme .
When we meet her, she’s a strong, steely widow, fiercely independent, infuriatingly self-involved, charismatic and sometimes cruel. Over the course of the drama, everything that defines her existence is stripped away; she loses property, professional self-respect, future earnings and the people she loves most. Her fiery conflict with her daughter’s new boyfriend brings emotional loss; her devoted neighbor has facilitated her financial thrashing, by getting her into some high-risk syndicates at Lloyd’s of London, which lead (as they did in actual fact) to bankruptcy and lifelong liability. She loses her house, property, income and becomes indentured to Lloyd’s for life.
On Broadway, the role of Esme was played, brilliantly, by Dame Judy Dench, for whom the role was written. But the original production was such a star turn, it was hard to notice the play or the other actors. North Coast Repertory Theatre artistic director David Ellenstein has taken a much more balanced perspective and presented the piece as an effective, and affecting, ensemble piece. His cast is outstanding.
As Esme , Rosina Reynolds is incandescent; her richly layered performance traces the journey from comfort to deprivation, companionship to solitude. At the end, after the losses have piled up, she’s left with only her integrity and her love of theater; she’s totally exposed, devoid of makeup, emotionally naked. Gone on the clever, entertaining affectations of the early scenes; this is a woman bared to the bone, emotionally raw. The defeats have darkened and deepened her as a woman and an actress. It’s a luminous performance.
Each of the other actors makes a credible character of what could be a caricature. Amanda Sitton’s Amy is not just an angelic, lovesick pushover. She has a spine, and a temper, she makes accusations, suffers losses and takes an enigmatic journey of her own (annoyingly unexplained by the playwright). The catalyst for all the explosions and disquisitions is Amy’s boyfriend, Dominic, who is everything Esme abhors: he’s a self-righteous philistine, a self-absorbed arts critic, TV personality and wannabe filmmaker who thinks theater is irrelevant and elitist. Brendan Ford finds an almost likable side to Dominic, who’s written as the boorish, loathsome embodiment of all that’s wrong in contemporary culture. Ford manages to make him sympathetic at times.
Craig Huisenga brings ambiguity to Esme’s adoring neighbor, Frank. How problematic is his drinking? How intentionally culpable is he in Esme’s financial downfall? We’re never really sure in this portrayal, but Huisenga maintains a calm composure with no hint of malice, and ages attractively over the course of time. Dagmar Krause Fields doesn’t steal scenes in her humorous early appearances as Esme’s fading mother-in-law, but she deteriorates with heartbreaking believability. And in a cameo role at the end, as a wide-eyed theater neophyte playing a scene with the great Esme , Tom Zohar is solid and convincing, without being fawning or ridiculous. He is the ray of hope for the future. With élan and finesse, Ellenstein has teased finely nuanced performances from this outstanding assemblage.
The character-defining costumes (Jeanne Reith) are period-perfect. Marty Burnett’s set is perhaps slightly less lavish than one might expect of an acclaimed and eccentric actress (and well-established widow) but the gardens outside the windows look inviting. When the sunlight streams through those windows, the lighting (Mike Durst) is a tad too yellow. But these are picky points. The sum-total is wholly satisfying, even if they play is overstuffed. In Hare’s oft-stated opinion, only in the theater can real issues, problems and emotions be addressed. This compelling production makes believers of us all.
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, through July 3.
SKATING ON THIN ICE
Cheryl Chan has a gripe, a grievance and a gun. Still dressed in her spangled ice-skating outfit, still balancing precariously on her skates, she came to Maggie’s diner for a piece of pie. But instead, she’s holding everyone hostage, all the late-night regulars: Marty (John Martin), a homeless addict who has DTs and occasional flashes of insight; security guard Joe (Mark Broadnax ) whose tools of the trade have been co-opted; now he’s handcuffed to a table and Cheryl’s got his gun. And even-tempered, no-nonsense, eternally maternal Maggie (Kim Strassberger ). Terrorizing them all is crazed, cursing, angry, beaten-down Cheryl (Jyl Kaneshiro). But first, before we actually meet all these characters, we get mysterious mimes of certain stances and hand-motions each will subsequently affect, echoed/shadowed by an All American Boy (adorable Geoffrey Yeager), accompanied by “God Bless America,” or “America the Beautiful” (in Paul Peterson’s evocative and provocative sound design). This is what the country has come to, a nadir of voyeurism, anguish and emotional captivity.
In Ruff Yeager’s “Bronze,” everyone has a humiliating story to tell, and no one’s going anywhere till Cheryl makes all of them reveal their most mortifying moments. Each narrative is more appalling than the one before, gut-wrenching tales about how parents can push or society can provoke or one can self-sabotage to a degree that changes (and/or damages) a life. Cheryl is at the end of her tether. She’s been humiliated in front of millions, taking a fall on the ice when she was a shoo-in for the Olympic Gold. She settled for the Bronze, but it wasn’t good enough for her parents (nothing ever is). And if she can’t get Gold, at least she can try to get even.
All of these characters carry an ache, an embarrassment, a guilt that has shaped their very existence. And each of these actors effectively embraces the pain and inhabits the odd individuals Yeager has created; Kaneshiro’s screaming, fuming, wounded Cheryl seems to see through the façades to the vulnerability inside the tough-guy that is Broadnax’s Joe; the transient intelligence of Martin’s Marty and the caring, motherly concern of Strassburger’s wonderfully grounded Maggie. Geoffrey Yeager (Ruff’s son) serves as silent, stylized guide and escort to the past and the internal life. As each story is told, Cheryl gives it an Olympic score, establishing a macabre contest, a competition for worst humiliation.
Yeager bitingly elucidates our wholly American fascination with spilling guts, watching people squirm, and winning at all costs (here, the ‘winner’ may or may not survive the ordeal). While there’s built-in suspense about who might get iced by the Ice Queen, we have to wait (sometimes impatiently) as each character tells a tale. This makes for a wearisome structure, though Yeager the writer flaunts an impressive sense of the dark side of human nature and American obsessions, coupled with a clearly comical/cynical weltanschauung. As a director, he is delightfully unpredictable, maintaining tension and intensity with precise, finely etched, choreographic moves.
Nick Fouch , fast becoming one of our best local scenic designers, has created a detailed suggestion of an all-night diner, metal barstools, formica tables and all. Ginger Harris varies the lighting from icy blue to blood red to near-complete obscurity, which is how the play begins; we’re in the dark as much as the characters at first. Then there are those downstage pantomimes; it takes a good while for Yeager to let us know what’s going on. But once he’s got us, he holds on tight. A long-time associate artist of Sledgehammer, Yeager begins a new chapter for the company, getting the 20th anniversary season off to a chilling start.
At Sledgehammer Theatre, through July 3.
LETTING DOWN THEIR HAIR
Douglas Sheehan, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for “The Lost Players’ Rapunzel,” considers his new musical “a love letter to actors.” The San Diego native, a veteran of “ General Hospital ” and “Knots Landing,” got his start at the Old Globe, where he was counseled to cultivate every skill known to man or beast, just in case they’d ever be called upon in some show. Hence, his Bio cites polo and bagpipes. And his play give actors an opportunity to show off all those abilities (that he apparently considers ridiculous and unnecessary, according to a recent radio interview). A noble effort, and all the best intentions. But it doesn’t really work.
For his world premiere, Sheehan has assembled some of San Diego ’s finest talent… from director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg to choreographer Javier Velaso and Equity actors Leigh Scarritt, Jason Heil and SDSU musical theater alum Rebecca Spear, as well as local favorites David McBean and Jeannine Marquie . Sheehan even appears himself, as the Player Captain. But despite all the talent involved, the piece feels forced, amateurish and strictly-for-kids. There’s a wink-nudge mugging that grows tiresome. Nothing appears effortless; everyone seems to be working hard to please.
The ‘Lost Players’ setup, that a traveling troupe is stranded with a broken-down wagon, is never clearly established; we have no idea who or where they are. But, in an effort to amuse themselves and pass the time, they decide to act out the story of ‘Rapunzel.’ And as (scene-changing) interludes between story segments, actors come out and ‘do their thing’ – whether it be juggling or mime, acrobatics or faux sword-swallowing (the only funny bit). These little divertissements are not amusing or appealing, and they put a drag on the evening, which is already far too long for a kids’ show (2 ½ hours plus).
The singing and movement are fine, and the fairy tale, once they finally get into it, is well told, with the dark edge of the Grimm original intact. Especially engaging is the malleable set (designed by Kevin Judge). The performances are commendable – Jason Heil has a real musical theater mien, and he makes an excellent swashbuckler (Prince Lars). Few actors could achieve the beautifully genuine innocence and naiveté of Rebecca Spear (with her achingly sweet soprano) as poor hapless, clueless Rapunzel. Both Leigh Scarritt as the Queen, and David McBean (ensemble) are playing characters they could portray in their sleep; she’s the balloon-busted, heavily made-up, overdressed, overkill killer-Mom and he’s …. fey and gay and in drag… again. Sheehan starts out playing as if for TV – too soft, too small. But he grows more agreeable as the play and story progress, even if the role is a bit self-serving (referring to his own life experiences, offering headshot autographs to a Pirate in the middle of the action, etc.). His music is pleasant if not memorable; the lyrics are occasionally clever, but mostly pedestrian. The lack of experience shows; good lyrics don’t distort words… so that someone’s singing about their eneMEE , etc.
Even though there are some quippy asides for adults, this show is strictly for children, who would probably enjoy the exaggerated action and prolonged silliness. Sheehan has chutzpah, you’ve gotta give him that. He also has a background in children’s theater, which shows. He’s already working on “George and the Dragon” which, he’s said, will ‘probably be another Lost Players’ production. I hope the Players make their existence more clear – and more relevant – next time. And that they tell their story in about 90 minutes.
At the Lyceum, through June 26.
When young men’s thoughts turn to love and fancy … all hell breaks loose. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has provided the Poor Players with a fertile opportunity to indulge all their adolescent fantasies. So there’s plenty of violence, sexual innuendo and aggressive action. ( but at least there’s no beer or pot in this show!). The women spend more time in the air – being held aloft, or carted off, by the men of the cast – than on the ground. With a raft of successes behind them, particularly the Shakespearean histories and tragedies, it can safely be said that this isn’t the Players’ strongest production; there’s just too much – shtick, silliness, running, screaming (and by and large, the more they yell, the less articulate they become). It’s exhausting after awhile.
Artistic director Richard Baird has created some wonderfully theatrical moments, but he does tend to overdo it. And as Bottom, he’s not quite as funny as he should be – though his overacting in ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ is amusing, and his scenes as an ass are, too. But the real standouts in this production are Julie Clemmons and Bethany Smith. As the elfin Puck (pointy ears and all), Clemmons is sly, mischievous, part ‘Clockwork Orange’/part Charlie Chaplin – agile and nimble and impishly outstanding in her use and clarity of language. Smith plays an adorably nerdy, bespectacled Helena , interminably running, spaniel-like yet sensuous, after the scornful Demetrius (Jeff Sullivan). Both women unintentionally steal focus when they’re onstage, though some of the interactions of the star-crossed, mixed-up lovers (including Jen Meyer as Hermia and Adam Parker as Lysander ) are delightful. Why Brandon Walker plays Snout, here a hardhat construction worker, as a gay, fawning limp-wrist (with eye shadow and nail polish, no less), appearance and behavior carried over when he portrays the Wall in ‘Pyramus,’ is beyond me. It works well, however, to begin the proceedings with the Mechanicals – literally setting the stage for what’s to come. But later, they sing an off-key ‘Dust in the Wind’ as they grieve for poor Bottom. And later still, Pyramus sings Clapton’s ‘Tears in Heaven.’ Well, whatever.
The use of shadows and silhouettes (lights and sound by Morgan Gilbert) and wittily convertible costumes (Billie Baird and Richard Baird) are quite effective. And the environs of the San Marcos Community Center are lovely. The locale will really be perfect when the Poor Players stage their special fundraiser performance in the Folly Garden Theatre at the beautiful La Jolla home of Judith and Walter Munk on June 18.
Poor Players at the Hearth Theatre in San Marcos , through June 12.
Special fundraiser performance; Saturday June 18, 3:30-6:30pm. 619-255-1401.
We may not have gotten everything we wanted, but San Diego was a palpable presence at the 59th annual Tony Awards. The Billy Crystal show, “700 Sundays,” which was developed at the La Jolla Playhouse under the direction of Des McAnuff, won for Special Theatrical Event. It’s also being hailed as the highest grossing solo show (some even said non-musical show) in Broadway history.
Though “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” which began its life at the Old Globe, was nominated for 11 awards, it only came away with one – for the knockout performance of Norbert Leo Butz , who was the favorite for the Best Actor in a Musical award. Watch this guy… he is the genuine article – a theatrical Triple Threat (actor, singer, dancer – and he’s hilariously funny). He is definitely going places. We’ll be able to say ‘we saw him way back when…’
“Monty Python’s Spamalot ,” which went in with 14 nominations, came home with only three wins .. but one of those was the Big One – the year’s Best Musical. Locally-trained Sara Ramirez, who attended the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts before heading off to Juilliard, won Best Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of The Lady of the Lake .
“The Light in the Piazza” scored big, with awards for Best Actress in a Musical (Victoria Clark) as well as Lights, Costumes, Score, Orchestrations and Scenic Design. The latter winner was Michael Yeargan , who’s designed many productions for the San Diego Opera, and returns here for the 2006 production of “Carmen.” Catherine Zuber , who won for Costumes, will also make a visit here soon, to design the Opera’s 2007 production of “ Wozzeck .” Adorable and talented Adam Guettel picked up the award for Best Score (and he contributed to the award-winning Orchestrations). Although he never mentioned it in his acceptance, his musical theater pedigree is something to crow about. He’s the son of Mary Rodgers (“Once Upon a Mattress”) and the grandson of the legendary Richard Rodgers. Sweet success.
The dark horse of the day (it was “Avenue Q” last year) was “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which moved from Off Bway uptown and snagged awards for Best Book of a Musical and Featured Actor in a Musical (funny, tubby, wild-haired Dan Fogler who, amazed that he won with “this hair, this body,” urged all actors to “Be brave! Be different!”).
In accepting the Lifetime Achievement Award, Edward Albee was his usual wry/dry self, but he showed some unadulterated emotion when dedicating the award to the memory of his life-partner, artist Jonathan Thomas, who died a month ago, after a prolonged illness. In thanking Albee for the marvelous role of George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” Bill Irwin, celebrating his surprise win as Best Actor in a Play, called Albee “one of our greatest playwrights – for this or any time.”
And oh yes, I can’t forget “Doubt,” John Patrick Shanley’s brilliant, era-defining drama that won for Best Play of the year. Definitely well deserved. It had already won the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. The show also earned a Tony for its Director (Doug Hughes), Lead Actress (the beloved Cherry Jones) and Featured Actress (Adriane Lenox, who was an unexpected winner, since she had a micro-mini role. “Just goes to show that more is less,” she crowed).
The evening’s entertainment generally worked fine, though the “ Spamalot ” number seemed supremely silly (and Tim Curry forgot NOT to do Frank N. Furter bit), Bernadette Peters was, IMHO, weak in the opener. Having Aretha (who’s not quite a Broadway Baby) perform was terrific… though, of all the Sondheim songs to honor the master’s 75th birthday, why on earth did they pick one (“Somewhere”) for which he didn’t write the music?? ( that would be Bernstein in the composer’s seat). Weird. Though her range isn’t as jaw-dropping as before, she can still style a song like no one else. So overall, a varied and entertaining show. Don’t miss it next year – San Diego is bound to make its voice heard yet again.
ALUMS IN THE NEWS (AND ON THE BOARDS)
SDSU grads from the MFA program in Musical Theater are being seen and heard all over town this season. Spencer Moses is performing in “ Palm Beach , the Screwball Musical” at the La Jolla Playhouse. Later this summer, he’ll also appear in Lamb’s Players Theatre’s “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” along with Nick Spear. Meanwhile, Rebecca Spear is in “The Lost Players’ Rapunzel” at the Lyceum. Kristen Mengelkoch is in “Tomfoolery” at North Coast Rep. As for current SDSUers : Nicole Werner is featured in “42nd Street” at the Welk and Omri Schein , recently so funny in “Bat Boy, the Musical,” opens soon in “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” at Moonlight Stage Productions in Vista, where Ryan Beattie and Juston Harlin will appear in “Big River” later this season.
THEY LOVED HIM IN DUBUQUE !
…That’s what playwright Jim Caputo wants for his epitaph .. at least, that’s what he’s saying this week. His play, “At Rise,” which was a hit at the Actors Alliance Festival 2004, just won second place in the Dubuque National One-Act Playwriting Contest. In addition to a cash award, the prize comes with a full production in August. One of the longest-established one-act playwriting contests in the nation, the competition has been held for 28 years, sponsored by the theater wing of the Dubuque County Fine Arts Society. As many as 150 original scripts are submitted annually .. and our Jim walked away with the prize, as he did last year, when he won the Actors’ Festival Best of the Fest and Best Writing awards. His luscious little two-hander, a smart and clever creation, concerns two playwrights who meet, greet, separate and ultimately collaborate. If you can make it in Dubuque …..
Celebrate the Glory of the Globe at their 70th anniversary Open House, FREE to all comers. The festivities take place on Saturday, June 18, from 10am-1:30pm on the Globe Plaza . Marion Ross, dressed as her royal highness, Queen Elizabeth (the First!), serves as Mistress of Ceremonies, and there’ll be scenes from this summer’s Shakespeare Festival, as well as music, dancing, backstage tours, costume displays, a kids’ craft area and refreshments. NBC’s Artie Ojeda and Kimberly King will also be on hand. An rsvp is requested though not required (619-231-1941 X 2356 or log onto 70thAnniversary@TheOldGlobe.org).
AND HERE’S TO YOU, MRS. ROBINSON
Sultry-voiced Anne Bancroft was always a class act. Her 50-year career ranged from the ruggedly courageous Annie Sullivan in “The Miracle Worker” to the predatory seductress, Mrs. Robinson, in “The Graduate.” Her death this week, at 73, due to uterine cancer, was a loss to the theater and film worlds, not to mention her husband of 41 years, Mel Brooks. A native of the Bronx (born Anna Maria Louisa Italiano ), she won a Tony for Best Supporting Actress in 1958, in “Two for the Seesaw,” which marked her Broadway debut. Her second Tony (this time for Best Actress) came the next year, when she played Anne Sullivan to 12 year-old Patty Duke’s Helen Keller. In 1962, she snagged an Oscar for the same role on film. Bancroft garnered Emmy awards for her TV work, including the CBS production of “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All” in 1994 and “Deep in My Heart” in 1999. Though she was a member of the Actors Studio, once she made it in Hollywood , she rarely performed onstage. But in 1977, she earned a Tony nomination for her performance in “Golda,” and as recently as 2002, she was set to star in Edward Albee’s “Occupant,” but the run had to be canceled when she contracted pneumonia.
In Bancroft’s honor, the lights on Broadway dimmed on Tuesday night, prior to curtain.
NOW, FOR WHAT’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (i.e., Critic’s Picks )
“Amy’s View” – beautifully acted ensemble piece featuring a magnificent performance by Rosina Reynolds as Amy’s mom. A touching, talky, sometimes funny play in a delightful production that shouldn’t be missed.
At North Coast RepertoryTheatre , through July 3.
“Bronze” – a world premiere by Sledge regular Ruff Yeager, which he also directs with wit and flair. The acting is excellent, and the play is provocative – about celebrity, parental expectation and individual/communal humiliation.
At Sledgehammer Theatre, through July 3
“Lobby Hero” – tense and intense, and often quite funny, this thought-provoking modern morality play is getting a superb production, under the assured direction of Kirsten Brandt.
On the Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through June 26.
“ Viburnum ” – First staged at last year’s Fritz Blitz, this poignant, often-humorous play features excellent direction and an outstanding ensemble.
At 6th @ Penn, through June 12,
“Looking for Normal ” – beautiful performances in a flawed but fascinating play that tests the limits of love.
At Diversionary Theatre, through June 11.
“Late Nite Catechism” – ‘class,’ whether Catholic or secular, with or without ruler-whacking, was never this hilarious. Three alternating ‘Sisters’ explain it all and interact with the audience. Be careful what you wear, say or do. Sister is watching.
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, Monday and Tuesday nights, extended through June 28.
“The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron” – a fun date night, which shows both genders a few of their more amusing and infuriating foibles.
At the Theatre in Old Town , ongoing.
Celebrate Juneteenth – the oldest national commemoration of the end of slavery—by doing something liberating ….at the theater!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.