By Pat Launer
Theater of the lethal kind;
Death seems to be on everyone’s mind.
In Nocturne, the grief is vast and tidal,
In Crave it’s frankly suicidal.
The Blue Room ’s sex is deadly filler
And No Way’s got a singing serial killer.
THE SHOW: NOCTURNE, the San Diego premiere of Adam Rapp’s luxuriant monologue of loss and grief, which was a Pulitzer Prize nominee, and one of the Best Plays of the 2000-2001 season in New York . This year, novelist-turned playwright/screenwriter Rapp was honored with the American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award (for his latest, Red Light Winter).His film “Winter Passing” was released in February. Opening night of Nocturne also marked the 5th anniversary of the gutsy, spirited and successful venture that is New Village Arts.
THE STORY: The title refers to a musical reverie, which applies to the play itself, written in movements, rife with musical references. Our “resilient” but nameless narrator (only called The Son) was a prodigy whose best recital piece was Grieg’s ‘Nocturne,’ which is the production’s leitmotif. A massive 1942 Steinway grand was the centerpiece of the “little blonde house” of his childhood, his father’s prized possession, an omnipresence that exuded “a hulking, coffin-like stillness… a kind of glacial intimacy.” To The Son, the piano “doesn’t sing, it sobs.” Evocative musical imagery courses through the play, jutting up against gorgeously lyrical, poetic descriptions like “a schizophrenic crowd of crows” or “clouds like grayed gauze.”
What motivates the monologue is the memory of a horrific tragedy. Fifteen years earlier, The Son killed his sister. That event has marked, scarred, dismantled his family and his life. It was inadvertent; he was 17 years old, driving home from his summer sandwich-making job. When the brakes of his 1969 Buick Electra failed, his beloved 9 year-old sister, in her yellow socks and saddle shoes, her white dress with little blue flowers, was decapitated. He remembers every tiny detail – but he can’t seem to recall his sister’s face. His mother, who watched the disaster from the house, plummeted into a depression from which she never emerged. His father pulled a gun on him and rammed it into his mouth. And The Son fled, getting as far away from Joliet , Illinois as he could. He wound up in New York, got a job in a bookstore, filled his apartment with “literary furniture” made from stacked-up books, acquired an Underwood typewriter, and wrote a novel telling the whole story, a tale about “a Midwestern guy, a former piano prodigy and insomniac.” The book is bought, he meets a beautiful, loving, patient “red-headed girl with gray-green eyes,” but he can’t shake the horror that haunts him. “Even grief does not expire,” he says; “it simply changes temperature.” Then, one day, he’s summoned by his dying father, and he returns to Joliet , to face his father, his fears and that hulking piano. And through the depths of this darkness, we see a faint flicker of light, a spark of hope, reconciliation and redemption.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: It’s a tricky piece, as much an essay as a drama. On the page, you could really linger on the language, and savor the richness of the imagery. On the stage, it is dispassionately presented, though it’s bursting with aching, raw emotion. The labyrinthine writing is filled with asides, accounts, depictions and digressions. The lush, poetic prose is the play’s strength and its non-dramatic frailty; there is no dialogue, very little interaction (a few scenes are enacted, mostly silently, upstage). In this interior monologue, sometimes a stream of consciousness, the narrator speaks of himself in the third person, invoking what he calls “a strange, filmic method of memory.” And yet, we are mesmerized.
The New Village Arts production is aptly spare, wonderfully designed by multitalented managing director Kristianne Kurner. There are three odd-shaped niches in the first act, beautifully lit by Ginger Harris. They are slightly askew, bathed in bluish light and shadow. The second act changes to one off-kilter area for the father’s rundown apartment, with a cockeyed door and lopsided window. The narrator spends all his time center-left, in the glare of a footlight, his own giant shadow looming behind him like a dark doppelganger. In the final scene, Harris’ lighting delicately evokes a new snow, the fresh whiteness a brilliant line of hope-filled white on the window sill.
In the upstage areas, several scenes are illustrated, with Joshua Everett Johnson portraying the traumatized Son (past), with Kathryn Herbruck as the shell-shocked mother, Monique Fleming as the forgiving/accepting Red-Haired Girl, and George Soete, riveting in his slumping silence, with the high-pitched, keening voice of a dying man. But the play belongs to Francis Gercke, whose precise, understated, deliberate and delicately calibrated performance is a very still, centered departure for this usually antic actor, a marvelous achievement of restraint (and memory!). In his directing debut, Joshua Everett Johnson displays a master’s touch, a meticulous way with the provocative stage-pictures and pitch-perfect storytelling.
THE LOCATION: New Village Arts at the Jazzercise Studio in Carlsbad , through May 27.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
A KISS BEFORE DYING
THE SHOW: NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY, the Southern California premiere of a funny noir musical created in 1987 by playwright/composer/lyricist Douglas J. Cohen, based on the 1968 film adapted from the 1964 William Goldman novel
THE STORY: Two Mama’s boys duke it out for supremacy: a zhlubby gumshoe and a frustrated actor-turned-serial killer. One lives with his mother; the other talks to a garish, looming painting of his deceased maternal unit. Both have been henpecked, demeaned and smothered (the nebbishy Jewish detective is frequently compared unfavorably with his brother, The Doctor). The frustrated actor just wants to get his name in the New York Times, like his Mom, the famous actress, did. And since he hasn’t had an audition in a year, this is the only way he can think of to make it happen. So he goes on a creative killing spree – using wigs, accents and costumes to snuff out unsuspecting older ladies who remind him of his monstrous Mommy, sealing their fate with a kiss: his trademark of lipsticked lips on their foreheads (the kisses, presumably, he never got from dear old self-serving Mom). He baits the shleppy detective Morris Brummell (Mo Brummell? Oy!) until Morris’ new girlfriend becomes dangerously involved and a gun-wielding climax ensues.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The production is downright hilarious and thoroughly irresistible. Director Rick Simas has marshaled a multi-talented cast (at least two of them his former students from the MFA musical theater program at SDSU) and made this little chamber musical really sing. He gives his excellent ensemble really funny stage business (Loved seeing Mo chug that Manischewitz!) and keeps the pace lively and the story suspenseful. Thanks to Marty Burnett’s inventive, ever-revolving set, Jeanne Reith’s delectable costumes and Mike Buckley’s slatted, noirish lighting, the look and feel of the production are perfect for the hard-boiled genre. Nick Spear and Rebecca Spear (offstage husband and wife) are delightful as hapless, mismatched Morris (who through the course of the evening, miraculously acquires a spine – and a bride) and his upscale, adorable main squeeze (who gets to wear the most stunning outfits). Meanwhile, Randall Dodge, as the histrionic Kit Gill, and Susan Denaker, as the Moms and all the victims, vie for the biggest laughs. Both performances are howlers. Dodge gets funnier and funnier with every disguise (his Spanish-speaking tango teacher is especially side-splitting; his French waiter and Irish priest aren’t bad, either!). Denaker equals him every round – as Jewish mom, Irish widow, floozy hooker. They are wonderful separately and great together. All the voices are strong, and this isn’t always an easy score to sing. There are tuneful numbers like “So Far, So Good,” but some of the more atonal, rapid-fire, Sondheimian songs are a challenge (well met). Some of the standout numbers are “Only a Heartbeat Away,” an Irish ditty that requires Dodge, a powerful baritone, to demonstrate a showy tenor range; the very clever/amusing “I Hear Humming” between Mo and his mom, and the mother/girlfriend duet, “So Much in Common.” Musical director/pianist Tim McKnight, along with pianist Andy Ingersoll, percussionist David Rumley and bass-man Patrick Marion, do a fine job of making the onstage band sound bigger than it is. There just isn’t anything not to like here. No Way to Treat a Lady is a killer.
THE LOCATION: North Coast Repertory Theatre, through June 4.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
THE SHOW: CRAVE, English provocateur Sarah Kane’s penultimate play, penned not long before her suicide in 1999, at age 28
THE BACKSTORY/THE STORY: It’s impossible not to see Sarah Kane’s work in light of her life. Starting out as a well-regarded actor/director, she soon edged toward writing, perhaps beginning to veer over the edge during David Edgar’s MA playwriting course at Birmingham University , which she reportedly disliked but completed for the sake of her mother. The first substantial work she produced was Sick, a series of three monologues, performed for a pub crowd in Edinburgh , concerning rape, eating disorders and sexual identity; her first person delivery was said to be “raw” and “unsettling”. Her first major production was Blasted , featuring scenes of cannibalism and sodomy. The play opened in January 1995 at London ’s Royal Court Upstairs, becoming the theater’s most controversial work in over thirty years. British newspaper critics went nuts, describing it as “a disgusting feast of filth”, a work “devoid of intellectual and artistic merit” and like “having your whole head held in a bucket of offal.” But established, respected dramatists such as Harold Pinter turned on the reviewers, telling them they were “out of their depth” and that Blasted was simply too complex for them. Kane continued to explore the violence of authority and institutions in the plays that followed: Phaedra’s Love (1996), her adaptation of Seneca; and Cleansed (1998). Unable to cope with the intensity of her emotions after completing Crave, she admitted herself to the Maudsley Hospital in south London for a time, recovering sufficiently to enjoy her play’s critical triumph – which was compared by some to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. Unfortunately, her happiness was short-lived and the depression returned. In January 1999, after completing 4.48 Psychosis (which will be presented by Stone Soup Theatre this August), she swallowed 150 anti-depressants and 50 sleeping pills. She survived because her flat-mate found her just in time, and rushed her to King’s College Hospital . Two days later, Kane was left alone for 90 minutes, just enough time for her to be discovered hanging from her shoelaces in a nearby restroom. Since her suicide, Kane has become the darling of the English theater.
So, that brings us to Crave, which may lack the horrific violence of her earlier plays, but it still suggests that death is a plausible condition to which one might aspire in the face of emotional disintegration. One voice in the darkness claims she would commit suicide if she weren’t already dead in life. This lyrical, contrapuntal composition, a veritable quartet of agony, is a peek inside the mind of a suicidal person. Four ‘characters,’ labeled only A ,B,C and M, scream, wail and whisper their pain. They represent a dark-hued rainbow of negative emotions – lust, anger, indignance, desire, hysteria, frustration, despair. They are traumatized by life, vomiting out a litany of injustices: rape, infidelity, family and romantic rejection, childlessness and most of all, loneliness. It is Beckettian in its luxuriously dark discourse of futility. Kane argued that there are demons in her head at least in part because they are also present in our cities, families, and institutions. But this is ultimately one woman’s twisted and tormented journey, a daring, audacious attempt to navigate a dangerous psychological landscape .
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Crave is an extraordinary and an extraordinarily difficult play. It is non-linear, devoid of a narrative arc, what Kane herself Kane called a “text for performance.” The ‘characters’ never interact. The rapid, choppy, emotion-charged explosions overlap. Jagged shards of language pierce the darkness and stab at the audience, while others go astray, miss their mark and are lost in the ether. Under Al Germani’s precise and painstaking direction, the actors are in seamless synch, but they never look at or see each other, never in fact, open their eyes. They sit, like an inward-focused string quartet, some with legs widespread for a phantom cello, configured in a squared-off arrangement, with the audience surrounding them, as close as a touch. They hunch over microphones, which renders some of their output unclear, event unintelligible at times. The relentless linguistic onslaught is punctuated by brilliant bursts of silence; the primal screams are offset by strained or pleading whispers. Recursive phrases reappear in unison. As a psychotherapist, Germani is perfectly attuned to the language, pace and emotion of the piece, which he has conducted with the rigor of a demanding symphonic maestro. It’s a diabolical concerto, not for the faint of heart, not for those who crave logic, reason, answers, plot, characters . It all begins with an intense, unwavering tonal noise, the kind that makes you meditate or go mad. It gets louder; it feels like a jet roaring above you or perhaps something exploding inside your head. It becomes a deafening, unnerving, teeth-gritting sound. And then it slowly dissipates and dies away. And the barrage begins.
The performances are searing, with 16 year-old Sonya Bender absolutely mind-blowing, so gentle and tender and hurt, so innocent and knowing and frightened and wounded. Also extremely potent is Andrew Kennedy as the various men in the piece (though some productions have featured more than one male actor). He is confessional, endearing, irritated, irate, conciliatory, unfathomable . Jennifer Jonassen plays one note—anger—at varying volumes. As M (Mother?), Jo Dempsey stepped in to replace the irreplaceable Linda Libby. Hers is a muted performance, and not as clearly etched as Bender’s or Kennedy’s. Perhaps it was my seat, but I often found her words hard to decipher. We hear that Bender lost a mother, Dempsey wants a child, Kennedy is a pedophile, Jonassen is addictive, homosexual; Bender is trying to remember, she wants to die (“I’m having a breakdown because I’m going to die. I’m evil. I’m damaged. No one could hate me more than I hate myself”). “I crave,” they say in unison, each expressing a desperate need for something they do not, may not ever, have. “Put me down or put me away.” “The loss,” they wail. A mother beats her child, a man beats his wife and their child watches but does nothing. A murder is committed. A child is conceived in rape. And so it goes, for 50 relentless, expressionistic minutes. “What’s anything got to do with anything?” Bender asks at one point. You’ll just have to figure it out for yourself.
THE LOCATION: Lynx Performance Theatre’s Clairemont space, through June 11.
THE BOTTOM LINE: A good bet for those who can take it, but definitely not to everyone’s taste
THE SHOW: THE BLUE ROOM, David Hare’s 1998 adaptation of the acclaimed Max Ophuls film, “La Ronde” (1950), which was in turn adapted from Arthur Schnitzler’s 1897 play, Reigen (meaning Round-Dance or Roundelay), a dramatic exposé of the decadence of Austrian society and the toll syphilis was taking on it . Because of its explicit content, the play wasn’t produced for 20 years and its printed version was circulated only to the author’s friends. It didn’t make much of a stir until the French movie version. In its latest incarnation, the play is most famous for the momentary nude scene (well backside scene, really, which lasted as long, and was as dimly lit, as the much ballyhooed Full Monty bare-all) that featured Nicole Kidman live onstage in London and New York
THE STORY/ THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Set in a nameless large city that feels very much like London in the late 1990s, Hare’s version is not that different from Schnitzler’s original, a cynical commentary on love and betrayal, and sex in all its sordidness, emptiness and potential danger. The “roundelay” is a daisy chain of characters from different strata of society, going through a round robin of sexual liaisons, with each brief scene including one person from the prior encounter. To establish each scene, the names of the generic characters (The Girl, The Politician, The Model, The Student, The Playwright, The Actress, The Married Woman, etc.) are projected, as is the duration of the sex act in question – a range from zero minutes to 2+hours). There are a few updates to the original: the Soldier is now a Cab Driver, the Parlor Maid has become an Au Pair and The Count is an “Aristocrat,” though that may go over better in England, as would a great deal of the Brit-inflected dialogue. In both fin de siècle plays, the characters are concerned about health risks, though the source of concern has changed over time.
One major modification Hare made was to re-cast the 10-character play as a two-hander. This demands a virtuosic spectacle of versatility by the actors. It also creates a strong sense of the mechanical, dehumanizing, disillusioned sameness and circularity of it all, regardless of class, age or gender. But in the local version, produced by playwright/actor Paul Tylar(under the banner of his Gin and Hamlet Productions) and directed by Eric Elrod, there are six actors, most of them doubling up, though inexplicably, one performer (Chris Buess) only plays a single role, the very last link in the chain, which interrupts the cyclical conceit of the play. So, we get the sense of the ruthless amorality, the deception and dissatisfaction, but with minimal plot or character development, there’s little to admire and no dazzling craftsmanship (or bare butts) on display. Which leaves us feeling a bit dissatisfied and unfulfilled, too.
The scenes give way so rapidly (though with far more set-change activity than necessary, and less post-coital costume adjustment than warranted), that we don’t really have any feeling for any of the characters. But maybe that’s the point; they don’t have much feeling for each other, either. Here, sex is a commodity and a need. There’s a huge gulf between both amorous and sexual fantasy and its everyday reality. Elrod dutifully has them falling in and out of bed with each other, and some of the scenes are quite erotic). But however brief (100 intermissionless minutes), the play feels protracted and predictable.
The cast is competent, sometimes sexy (especially Beth Everhart as The Girl and Kathrin Keune as The Model), but these aren’t heart-stopping performances. Ed Hollingsworth is aptly pompous as The Politician (not class-different enough as the Cabbie) and Paul Tylar is convincingly nervous as The Student (though not quite self-absorbed and over-the-top enough as the pretentious Playwright). Similarly, Molly Lovell is down-to-earth as The Wife, but not enough of a grande dame/femme fatale as the successful Actress). Buess is not sufficiently patrician as the Aristocrat (and it’s hard to believe that he’d get drunk, have sex and pass out, all without even removing his cufflinks). All told, everyone seems to be taking this very seriously, which is good and bad; there’s too little comedy in this sometimes-broadly written satire. The sexy parts may satisfy your prurient interests, but it all tends to leave you with the same burning question as the characters, “Is that all there is?”
THE LOCATION: Gin and Hamlet Productions at 6th@Penn Theatre, through June 25.
IN THE NEWS…
Double whammies on the next two Mondays; you’ll just have to make a difficult choice: On Monday, May 15: Two much-missed groups are making a comeback on the same night:
…Sledgehammer is premiering Tijuana Burlesque by Francis Thumm, at the 10th Avenue Theatre (7:30).
… San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre is finally mounting the long-awaited (and postponed) reading of Athol Fugard’s chilling Master Harold… and the Boys, with Joe Powers directing a great cast: Antonio TJ Johnson, Mark Christopher Lawrence and Jason Connors (8pm at 6th @ Penn).
Monday, May 22:
…Carlsbad Playreaders conclude their season with a reading of Craig Wright’s high school reunion play, The Pavilion (seen at the Old Globe in 2001, directed by Craig Noel at age 86 – his 226th Globe production!), featuring Scott Drummond, Juliana Lorenz and Terry Scheidt (7:30pm at the Carlsbad City Library).
…Chronos Theatre Group presents a staged reading of the legend of Shakuntala, written by Halisada, considered the greatest of all ancient Indian playwrights (7:30pm at 6th @ Penn)
…Coming up, in concert with the 13th annual Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival: Malashock Dance’s Fathom: The Body as Universe (opens May 13 at the Birch North Park Theatre), Eveoke Dance Theater’s Soul of a Young Girl: Dances of Anne Frank (also opens May 13, at the 10th Avenue Theatre, with provocative post-performance speakers after each Sunday matinee); and A Tribute to an Uncommon Playwright: Wendy Wasserstein at North Coast Rep, which features readings of Uncommon Women and Others (June 5), Isn’t It Romantic (June 6, and I’ll be part of that cast); and Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Heidi Chronicles (June 7).
ON THE MOVE…
West Hiler just graduated from UCSD’s masters program in Direction, having done terrific directing work this year with wildly imaginative productions of Measure for Measure and Tim Lord’s latest creation for the Baldwin New Play Festival, Santa Ana Winds. He’s starting out in the world with a big splash… serving as Des McAnuff’s assistant director on a New York workshop of The Essential Alice, which the La Jolla Playhouse commissioned from Patté Award-winning playwright (Be Aggressive)
Annie Weisman. Then, in the fall, West will spend four months as a Directing Fellow with the Drama League, whose Directors Project has spawned such talents as John Rando, Mark Brokaw, Christopher Ashley and Loretta Greco, to name a few. Heady company indeed — and we hope West does the program proud. In Jan-Feb. 2007, he’ll fly to in Columbia , MO to direct Taming of the Shrew at Stephen’s College. Not a bad first post-grad year!
Speaking of directors, Katie Rodda (who wowed audiences and critics last year with her direction of Viburnum) heads off to Italy this summer to participate in La MaMa ETC’s Umbria Program, the 7th annual International Symposium for Directors. The 3-week program, located in the countryside of central Italy (not far from Rome ), focuses on how prominent artists on the international scene create their unique productions. In addition to the honor of being accepted (she’s been wanting to go for six years), Katie gets an extra bonus: Tina Landau, on whom she wrote her doctoral dissertation, is one of this year’s teaching artists. As Katie put it: “I’m so excited I can hardly stand it!”
I was notified by teacher Diane Jones, that there was at least ONE public school in last week’s successful San Diego Student Shakespeare Festival: Mt. Carmel High School, a regular, non-charter, non-magnet school, was there in force. More power to ‘em, and may they serve as inspiration to other public schools for next year.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Critic’s Picks)
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Nocturne – magnificently written, superbly performed; a poetic contemplation of grief, loss and redemption
New Village Arts at Carlsbad jazzercise, through May 27
No Way to Treat a Lady – hilarious noir musical (murder CAN be tuneful and funny!), an outstanding cast, well directed
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, through June 4
Crave – very well done, but not for everyone (dark, confusing, disturbing, depressing)
At Lynx Performance Theatre space in Clairemont, through June 11
Trying – an autobiographical two-hander, a tad predictable, but excellently acted, directed and designed
At the Old Globe (Cassius Carter), through May 21.
Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit – drop-dead uproarious. RUN, don’t saunter, to see this side-splitting spoof of Broadway shows, with the mega-talented Off Broadway cast. Limited engagement; what are you waiting for?
At the Theatre in Old Town , EXTENDED through June 11.
This Mother’s Day, be a Good Kid – take your Mom to the theater!
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.