By Pat Launer
A Life in the Theatre can be gleeful and hearty,
A strange trip or a Wild Party;
A raucous refrain, a sweet cantata,
Or a cough-fest à la Traviata.
But The Road to Mecca can be a fata morgana…
It’s not easy to reach artistic nirvana.
For theater insiders, there are plenty of in-jokes in David Mamet’s “A Life in the Theatre,” currently getting an outstanding production at North Coast Repertory Theatre. There’s the actor rivalry, the backbiting, the petty squabbles, the pontificating voice of experience, the mentee who no longer needs mentoring and a raft of onstage gaffes and disasters: broken zippers, missing props, lost lines and general havoc. It’s enough to cause actors in the audience to double over in gleeful recognition. But there are some extra ‘insider’ delights if you know the principals.
First, there’s the back-story that, a dozen years ago, NCRT’s artistic director David Ellenstein played the role of the younger actor to Jonathan McMurtry’s older man. Wisely, he’s cast McMurtry again, since the role was just about tailor-made for him. (After the opening, McMurtry confided that, 12 years later, he feels a lot closer to what’s going on onstage). And if you know McMurtry and his youthful counterpart Fran Gercke, the talented artistic director of New Village Arts Theatre, there are a few additional treats in the text which, ironically, nail each of them and their habits as performers. At one point, McMurtry, as the elder statesman of actors, decries “The mugging! The stilted diction!” — some have said that of him. And he chides Gercke’s character, the young-buck actor, saying, “Could you perhaps do less?” which could apply to Gercke’s sometimes fussily hyperactive performances. But not this one.
Under Ellenstein’s richly layered, pitch-perfect direction, both actors are in top form (Gercke even gets to show his buff agility, doing some 50 pushups and finessing a boxer-like cross-hand jumprope routine).
The two play off each other masterfully , and they mine all the humor inherent in the piece. Each character takes a journey: one star is rising, the other falling. Frequently, with this play, the older actor’s performance is overstated, overexaggerated and over the top. McMurtry brings a great deal of nuance to the character, who continues to pronounce and pontificate though his heart is clearly aching with the acknowledgment of his age, and his envy of the younger man’s youth, energy, friends and even his tools of the trade. Whereas the younger actor’s role is often played as just a cipher who merely reacts to the histrionics of the older man, Gercke’s performance, modulated and restrained, creates a living, breathing man who morphs, thanks to diligent practice and good reviews, from a groveling, self-effacing, awe-struck acolyte into a confident player who realizes that he is exceeding his ‘mentor’ and no longer needs his help.
Jeanne Reith’s marvelous quick-change costumes are manipulated by two silent — but still very present — onstage dressers (Sylvia Enrique and Fabiola Francesca), whose work is complemented by a visible Stage Manager (Pat Moran) executing several theatrical acts — light checks, prop movement, etc. — that provide extra time for those multitudinous costume changes. All three do very nice work.
The actors are obviously sharing a dressing room in a repertory company, so we get to see them perform in a wide variety of scenes and styles that are often quite hilarious. Marty Burnett’s set does a lovely job of creating the requisite makeup mirror, the footlights, scrim and audience upstage, and the clear sense of a backstage and a performing space. Mike Durst’s subtle lighting brings it all to life, with e xpressive backgrounding by George Ye’s sound design, though that cello does tend to wear out its welcome after a time. In truth, so does Mamet’s conceit. He makes his points early on and somewhere around the one-hour mark in this 90-minute one-act, the piece begins to feel repetitive. But Ellenstein and his crackerjack cast have an excellent sense of timing, and once the half-way point is reached, the piece moves spryly to its inexorable conclusion.
Overall, the production is a delight in all ways… for the stories it tells, the tips it gives, the honest peek behind the curtains it represents. Theater-folk will recognize the behaviors, the onstage disasters and the personality quirks depicted. And non-theater people will relish the insider’s view they’re privy to. This one is a must-see for all.
YOUR OWN PRIVATE IDAHO
Mecca is the Promised Land. And all of us have our own conception of Paradise, some haven we’d like to retreat to — physically or figuratively. In Athol Fugard’s 1985 drama, “The Road to Mecca,” Miss Helen, an elderly Afrikaner has created her own private little piece of heaven in her garden. It’s her escape from her church, her neighbors, and from the harsh landscape of the South African Karoo desert. Like so many artists, she withdraws into her art and then, when no one understands it, or when it seems to flout the rules or mores of the surrounding society, she’s forced to defend her art, to protect it, to hold onto it as if it were her life. It is.
Fugard grew up in this same desolate area, and his creation is based on a real local character. Although Helen grew up in the tiny town of New Bethesda, she’s been ostracized, because she turned away from the church and toward her own inner vision, embodied in a yard-full of strange statuary and ornaments she fashions out of beer bottles, cement and individual freedom. The townspeople, represented here in the person of pastor Marius Byleveld, are frightened by Helen’s ‘blasphemous’ sculptures of wisemen and camels and owls, and they want her put safely away in an old-age home. Her sense of freedom is a threat to their very existence. But Elsa Barlow, a 31-year-old teacher from Capetown, has been smitten and inspired by Helen’s spirit and independence, and she will fight anyone to help the older woman maintain both.
Elsa is just emerging from her own personal hell, and she’s driven hundreds of miles, from Capetown, to help Helen through hers. In the hands of a world-weary Priscilla Allen and adorable Jessica John, the women’s interactions are electric. Together, they cover as much ground as the Great Karoo. There are white-black issues of apartheid, and the clash of maturity vs. youth, women vs. men, love and trust, freedom and constraint, fear of old age and the loss of the creative spark.
A fascinating female parallel to the older/younger actor duo in “A Life in the Theatre,” this play also concerns the power and influence of art, but it takes a much more serious turn. Art, it seems, especially in the current climate, must always be defended.
Allen brings Helen to life, in a finely shaded performance that goes from fear and trepidation to strength and nobility. As austere as Allen seems at times, John is the ideal antidote: lovely, lively, enthusiastic and energetic, even through her character’s tribulations and obsessions. Between them, late in the play, stands a staid and stern Ralph Johnson as the pastor who wants Helen to be put away, into a nursing home, so her free spirit and independence are no longer a rebuke to the community. Only after he leaves do we learn of his possible affection for Helen; there was little hint of that delicate layer in this portrayal.
Director Patrick Stewart has kept the proceedings understated; the play has a slow build, but these actresses keep the pace vigorous. The set (Matt Scott) is a bit enigmatic, more a painted abstract of tree-like structures than the wild, weird sculptures described in the text. And not enough is made of the light, which figures prominently in the play but minimally in this production.
This is one of Fugard’s quieter pieces, but the inevitable after-show discussions his work engenders are, along with these performances, reward enough.
COUGH, SING AND DIE….
“La Traviata ,” in case you didn’t know, means ‘misguided girl.’ Verdi’s beloved 1853 opera was based on a play, La Dame aux Camélias (the coughing “Camille” in English), by the younger Alexander Dumas, which was, in turn, based on his semi-autobiographical novel. The story has to do with disease and love, which doesn’t sound like such an attractive combination. Of course, in these AIDS days, those types of tales are commonplace in the theater.
Violetta, a delightful young lady of somewhat dubious reputation, was based on the character of a real courtesan that Dumas knew and loved in 1840’s Paris. Just for the historical record, her original name was Alphonsine Plessis, but she changed it to Marie Duplessis in order to sound more regal. In the cemetery of Montmartre, directly below the white church of the Sacre Coeur, tourists still visit the grave of Marie Duplessis, the original ‘misguided girl,’ who died on February 2, 1846, just 19 days after her 22nd birthday. Among her numerous lovers during the last year of her life were Dumas fils and Franz Liszt. But I digress….
The San Diego Opera production of “Traviata,” its seventh, is glorious to behold. The sets and costumes, also used in the 1971 and 1997 SDO productions, are sumptuous, often breathtaking. Nonetheless, that doesn’t excuse the time it takes to change them. It’s unconscionable in these tech-savvy days, to have three 20-minute intermissions, a total of one hour of break-time in a two-hour opera. Absurd. The four acts were short; after the second 20-minute interval, Act III lasted a mere 23 minutes. The breaks lengthened the evening by a third. There’s got to be a better way.
The direction, by Ian Campbell, keeps the action focused and engaging. And the magnificent lighting, by Chris Rynne, draws us into this (recognizably) decadent, hedonistic world (mid-1800 Paris and its environs). This translation (supertitles credited to Ian Campbell) did not render the story crystal-clear. Violetta’s past was not elucidated, only her dedication to joy. And the reasons for Germont’s pleas for Violetta to disavow her love for his son, Alfredo, were also murky. But all these are minor quibbles in face of the music.
First and foremost, Violetta. Anja Harteros, the German soprano with the Greek surname, is spectacular. She’s beautiful to look at, an excellent, credible actor and a magnificent singer. Her supple voice is smooth and mellow in the low range and gloriously pure in her coloratura turns. Her vocal robustness often overpowers Richard Troxell’s tenor, but his portrayal of Alfredo is potent, and his intense and impetuous love is palpable. James Westman brings a rich baritone to Germont, the reputation-obsessed father who destroys a perfect love, ultimately realizing his error and suffering remorse, but too late. As Alfredo’s rival, the Marquis, James Scott Sikon has an imperious manor and a full-bodied baritone. Mezzo Ilse Apéstegui and bass Ethan Herschenfeld bring apt gravitas to the faithful Annina and the Doctor who cannot save Violetta from the deadly consumption. At the end, Harteros offers one of the greatest death-falls I’ve ever seen.
The orchestra sounded wonderful under the baton of the gifted Edoardo Müller. In all, this is a Traviata to die for, if not (for some reason) to cry for. See Harteros now (and next season in SDO’s “Simon Boccanegra.” She may be an opera luminary before you know it.
WHAT A SWELL PARTY IT WAS…
A dark, witty, cynical poem about New York debauchery during Prohibition was written in 1926 by former ‘New Yorker’ editor Joseph Moncure March. It was banned in Boston. Amazingly, nearly 75 years later, in the same New York theater season (2000), two musicals emerged called, as the poem was, “The Wild Party.” No professional productions of either have yet made their way to San Diego. But Marinee Payne, drama teacher/director at Torrey Pines High School, scored a major coup and brought the Andrew Lippa musical to her students. (She told me she chose that version because she liked Lippa’s score a lot more than Michael John La Chiusa’s). She pared down and cleaned up the story a bit, eliminated a Lesbian (changing the comic “Old Fashioned Lesbian Love Song” to “Old-Fashioned Fairy-tale Love Song” — well, it is Carmel Valley — and high school!). Still, the piece is provocative, loaded with alcohol, promiscuity, infidelity, fights and even murder. Sounds like a typical week in high school these days.
It’s the tale of a fragile relationship gone wrong. Queenie, a sultry, sweet-tough dancer, is fed up with her abusive boyfriend Burrs, a clown. He’s bored but he can’t let her go (though the ex-hooker Kate is waiting in the wings). Queenie, though unhappy, cannot overcome inertia and leave. He still brutalizes, she still endures. It’s an all-too-familiar story. She decides to throw a party to humiliate him. An eccentric slew of guests pours in, including the raunchy vixen Kate and the mysterious Black. The evening turns from seduction and passion to destruction and murder.
Back at the high school, with minimal adult and financial support, Payne mounted a marvelous production. I had to keep reminding myself that these were 16-17 year-olds. They looked stunning (the glamorous ’20s outfits were mostly “collected” from the school’s costume shop) and the music was terrific. Senior student Willy Chu, who’s about to begin an Economics major at Stanford (music is just his hobby), scored, orchestrated and conducted an 11-piece ensemble, while playing a mean piano/keyboard himself.
Only the leads were miked in this small, black-box space (shouldn’t a 3000-student school in an upscale neighborhood merit a state-of-the-art theater to rival — or complement — its sports facilities??), so the chorus sounded weak by comparison. But they looked striking and held their own (and their poses). The female leads were especially strong: the luminous, sexy, Monroe-esque Erika Jermasek as the profligate Queenie; eye-popping, red-dressed Alisha Zalkin as Kate, a fireball of talent who has natural musical theater moxie and moves; and Anna Esko as Madelaine True (erstwhile lesbian) who’s spunky and funny with her droll love song. Another comic turn is “Two of a Kind,” sung by the Mutt-and-Jeff duo, Todd Huguenor and Sonya Bender, as Eddie and Mae.
As Burrs, the charming Ben Halstead acted better than he sang, but his performance was captivating. Mellow-voiced Dan Tracer played Black as a darkly seductive enigma (though he’s only a doorman) who spells Trouble from his first entrance.
It was, overall, an astonishing high school production — an enormous challenge, extremely well met. Kudos to all!
THE TONY CONNECTION
San Diego made a terrific showing in this week’s Tony nominations. We are a FORCE to be reckoned with! There is, of course, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “I Am My Own Wife” (by Douglas Wright) which premiered here in the first La Jolla Playhouse Page to Stage production. It’s nominated for Best Play, Best Direction (Moisés Kaufman) and for Jefferson Mays’ spectacular performance. He is, you may remember, a UCSD alum, also seen here in the Rep’s “Hamlet” and as “Tartuffe” at the Playhouse.
The prolific Jack O’Brien is up for another Tony for his thrilling Lincoln Center production of “Henry IV.” Globe associate artist Ralph Funicello (SDSU faculty) was also nominated for designing the piece. Another Globe associate artist, Dakin Matthews, got a special Drama Desk Award for his adaptation of the two-part play (which was seen at the Globe in 1995, directed by Jack O’Brien). Overall, “Henry” snagged six Tony noms. O’Brien also captured the Outer Critics Circle Award for his direction of “Henry IV,” which won for Best Revival of a Play.
Another local scenic designer, Robert Brill (UCSD alum and Sledgehammer co-founder) was nominated for the set for “Assassins.”
It’s gonna be a Hot Night for San Diego theater at this year’s Tonys… Don’t miss ’em! Sunday, June 6. Cheer on the home team!
And now, for THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“A Life in the Theater” — outstanding duet by Jonathan McMurtry and Fran Gercke; they play actors who play off each other beautifully; at North Coast Rep, through June 6.
“La Traviata” — gorgeous sets and costumes and the glorious, mellifluous voice of Anja Harteros make this well worth your while, no matter how many times you’ve seen/heard it. Harteros is definitely someone to watch; at the Civic through May 19.
“The Road to Mecca” — Priscilla Allen and Jessica John in Athol Fugard’s thought-provoking play about the power of art; off-nights at 6th @ Penn, through June 2.
“Shirley Valentine” — virtuoso performance by Rosina Reynolds in a warm, funny, touching play. At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through June 6, and at North Coast Repertory Theatre from June 10-13.
“Fully Committed” — return, command performance of David McBean’s hilarious tour de force. Don’t miss it this time! Cygnet Theatre, through May 16.
I’m off to New York… there’s Tony-nominated, San Diego-connected theater to be seen! Have a great (theater-filled) week,
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.