By Pat Launer
Beauty is as beauty does
And ‘Pageant’s’ the wildest that ever was.
But in the Moonlight, beneath the tan,
You can see The Arms AND The Man.
War is hell. But some people romanticize it, fantasize about it. Think it’s all valor and heroism. Well, Raina does. She’s in love with a soldier, and she sees him as a bona fide hero,; war gives him the opportunity to display his bravery and gallantry. He is the valiant warrior and theirs is the ‘higher love.’ But before she can hop into her bed after kissing his photo goodnight, another officer has popped into her boudoir. He’s from the other side of the battle, a Swiss mercenary it turns out, fighting for the Serbs. Oh, did I mention that the play takes place in Bulgaria in 1885? No matter. It could’ve been set in Kansas , 2005. For all the dead and wounded we see from our own war (1500 and 11,000, respectively and counting), this might as well be Raina’s war – bloodless and heroic. Well, anyway, there she is, in George Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man,” with a “chocolate soldier” hiding out in her room – he who carries chocolate creams instead of ammunition in his pack. By the time he wins the battle for her affection, she’s learned that war IS hell, that her betrothed is no hero, that love is better honest than ‘elevated.’ Her pompous fiancé winds up with the brazen maid he’s enchanted by and everything’s sorted out after various intrigues, cover-ups and crossed communications. The play is one of Shaw’s most successful efforts at blending farce, drawing room comedy and a political platform; he called his 1894 effort “an Anti-Romantic Comedy.” In its time, the play was nearly revolutionary in its insistence on dissolving romantic idealizations of love and war. It’s even a bit incendiary in the current climate.
Some productions go way over the top and make the piece more slapstick than satirical. But in the assured hands of Globe associate director Brendon Fox, the piece is played straight, and the laughs, when they come (less often than in some more exaggerated productions), emerge naturally from the text, and not from a whole lot of silly stage business. Fox has assembled an outstanding cast; the ensemble work is terrific. L.A. Equity actor Melanie Lora is delightful as Raina , a lovely, credibly idealistic ingénue who is easily smitten but also strong-willed and willing to change. Rosina Reynolds does the best she can with the fairly thankless role of her mother, and Tim West is a hoot as her bumbling father, the Bulgarian Major. Randall Dodge is perfectly pompous as the beloved Sergius , who isn’t played as just a philandering fool; he clearly has a heart – and a conscience, which makes him a far more interesting character, who along with Raina , makes some changes and gets what he wants (and deserves). Another Angeleno , Mario Schugel , is absolutely enchanting as the stalwart and sensible Cpt . Bluntschli , the “chocolate soldier.” According to his bio, he’s returning to the stage after a six-year hiatus, and he’s welcome back in San Diego any time. He has wonderful, charming stage presence. The big surprise is Jennifer Austin, who usually plays the ‘nice, good girls’ and here is a (most attractive) dark-haired saucy wench, the conniving, upwardly-mobile maid, Louka . As her fellow-servant, the obsequious Nicola, Marcus Overton may be a bit old for the likes of Austin , and perhaps a mite less snobby than the character is written, but he makes it all work just fine. Paul Bourque rounds out the cast with the small walk-on role of the Russian Officer.
Jeanne Reith has dressed everyone quite splendidly. Mike Buckley’s set is a strange mix, Old World opulence framed by a cartoonish arch that seems to undermine the believable world Fox has painstakingly created. Jennifer Setlow’s lighting perfectly mirrors the changing indoor/outdoor, night/day moods of the bedroom vs. garden scenes, and Justin Hall’s sound design captures the jumpy shock of gunshot. It all adds up to a marvelous production, a comedy that takes itself seriously, exposing hypocrisy and the opposing forces of idealism and pragmatism, the delusions that define and constrict one’s identity versus the truth that liberates the heart and mind.
At Moonlight Stage Productions’ Avo Playhouse, through March 20.
If you think the age of the Beauty Contest is over, you ain’t seen nothin ’ yet. This “Pageant” is like no other. The girls are buff, robust, muscular. Their voices and their personalities are strong. And they’ve got that little “something extra.” In the musical conceived by Robert Longbottom (with book and lyrics by Bill Russell and Frank Kelly, music by Albert Evans), the girls are gorgeous.. and they’re guys. But maybe you knew that. “Pageant” played to ecstatic audiences at North Coast Repertory Theatre in 2002. That was before Sean Murray started his own theater, Cygnet. Now, he’s bringing back the silly/seedy competition, in all its glitzy, sleazy glory. Along with James Vazquez (who is reprising the role of Miss West Coast), Murray has restaged the show, based on the direction and choreography of Russell Garrett, who originated the role of Miss Texas Off Broadway. Murray also designed the cheesy set, with its tinsel curtains and ‘Miss Glamouresse’ sign above the stage. It’s all about glam and Glamouresse – the cosmetics line with the ridiculous products – like Facial Spackle to fill those deep, nasty pores, and Lip Snack, for “color and calories” combined, in flavors like Poached Salmon Pink. The seven lovely contestants are vying for the title of Miss Glamouresse, which makes them spokesmodel for a year. To prove themselves worthy, each regional representative has to present a product, answer the Beauty Crisis Hotline, and strut her stuff in the evening gown, bathing suit and talent competitions. Things go from funny to absurd over the course of 110 minutes, and if you’ve seen the show once, that may be enough. But there are plenty of laughs to be had, and lots of ability (comic and otherwise) to admire and appreciate.
The cast is killer, and some of them could totally ‘pass.’ David McBean, appearing again (undoubtedly by popular demand) as Miss Deep South, always makes a beautiful female. And that ventriloquism act is uproarious (did you know he never did any ventriloquism until he played this role? He’s a knockout, with the three vocal ranges and the breakneck speed). Trevor Peringer (Miss Texas ) is a terrific addition, with his million-dollar smile and nasty/bitchy sportsmanship. Erick Sundquist does a bangup job as the perky proselytizer, Miss Bible Belt, who gets the show’s best and funniest song, “Banking on Jesus.” He makes for a fine-looking femme fatale as well – but what happened to the talent act of the Melody Bells? As Miss Great Plains, Andy Collins is a bit… um, tall, but his jingoistic, waving-wheat poetry recitation for the talent segment is excellently done. As the flaky, New Age Miss West Coast, Vazquez looks less than thoroughly female in that goofy blonde wig, but he soars again with his very comical Martha Graham/Isadora Duncan interpretive dance, “The Seven Stages of Me.” Matthew Weeden , a recent grad of the MFA musical theater program at SDSU, brings a great comic sense and a Charo -like shimmy to his laughing Latina , Miss Industrial Northeast. As Frankie Cavalier, the oily, unctuous host, Steve Gouveia (fresh from “Jersey Boys” at the La Jolla Playhouse) gets to show off his beautiful baritone – and a coral tux with tails. The costumes (originally designed by Gregg Barnes, re-created by Shelly Williams and Michael Dondanville ) are generally hilarious, though the opening outfit (which, unfortunately, makes a return visit later in the 110-minute show) is singularly unattractive and unflattering – on every one of those figures. It’s a dowdy turquoise number with what looks like a t-shirt underneath. The only misstep in the show. Of course, the show itself has some missteps. That trip to Venus is really ridiculous, and really could be eliminated (bring back the bells and can Venus!). After all is said and done, it is a one-joke evening. But Murray works his magic and makes it sing. And when the girls bid a musical adieu to the former Miss Glamouresse ( Noo Yawk accented Vasquez), they sing “Goodbye, Old Queen, Goodbye.” Funny stuff. But maybe the real message to beauty wannabes (of any gender) is in the final farewell – “Look your best, don’t ask why/ Just buy, buy buy ” (or is that bye, bye, bye??).
At Cygnet Theatre, through April 17.
Take the Promenade… San Diego ’s newest arts and creativity destination is unveiling its first phase of the preservation and renovation of 26 historic buildings on the site of the former Naval Training Center (NTC) in Point Loma. Check out the impressive, extensive Launch Plan for NTC on Thursday, March 24, 10-11am at the NTC Promenade, Liberty Station NTC Foundation executive director Alan Ziter will introduce the 18 Resident Groups who will make NTC their home, and will announce the Foundation’s first national event, scheduled for 2006. Site tours of the Phase 1 facilities will follow. Hard hats optional (only kidding), but walking shoes are a good idea.
BREAKIN’ UP THAT OLE GANG O’ MINE
Close on the heels of the departure of the multi-talented Vanda and Paul Eggington, Tom Stephenson has announced that he’s also leaving Lamb’s Players Theatre. The long-time LPT ensemble member served as company archivist. A Michigan native, Tom studied at the Interlochen Arts Academy and The Central School of Speech and Drama in London . A very natural, credible performer (Lamb’s producing artistic director Robert Smyth called him “one of the best actors in San Diego”), Tom’s played many memorable roles at Lamb’s, including Ben Franklin in “1776,” Renfield in “Dracula” (for which he won a Patté Award for Outstanding Performance), Polonius in “Hamlet,” Faustus in “Dr. Faustus,” and George Friedrich Handel in “Joyful Noise,” among many others. But Lambs’ loss is the community’s gain. Tom will be pursuing acting opportunities around the county. Look for him on other stages some time soon.
THE ULTIMATE PINTER PAUSE
Harold Pinter , age 74, the esteemed British playwright who spawned adjectives (i.e., Pinteresque , which refers to things menacing and enigmatic… or to his signature pauses), has announced that he’s not going to write any more plays. He’s directed and acted (at first under the nom de stage of David Baron), and penned some 29 plays, including “The Caretaker,” “The Birthday Party,” “The Homecoming,” “Betrayal,” “One for the Road” and “A Kind of Alaska” (all of which have been seen on San Diego stages). “That’s enough for me,” he said this week in a in a radio interview. But he hasn’t given up writing altogether. He’s currently directing his creative energy to poetry; “War,” his collection of anti-war poems, was published in 2003. And he’s spending more time on politics, since he finds the current state of affairs “very worrying.” Ever the master of the understatement.
THE LAST FLIGHT OF FOY
Peter flies no more. Peter Foy, that is. The innovator in the art of theatrical flight, who helped scores of actors soar — from Mary Martin to Sally Field, from Cathy Rigby to countless Valkyries , died last week at age 79. The man who used harnesses, pulleys, tracks, and wires as thin as sewing thread to suspend performers (and disbelief), said he lived for the audible gasp from the audience when someone took to the air onstage. He flew Bob Hope and Jack Benny, Michael Jordan and Garth Brooks, and even Liberace, piano et al. His Broadway credits, besides, of course, “Peter Pan,” include “The Lion King,” “Angels in America,” “Aida,” and currently, “Monty Python’s Spamalot .” British by birth, he started his American company, Inventerprises , in 1957. But everyone knew it as Flying by Foy. Wherever he is now, we know how he got there.
The 20th annual San Diego Shakespeare Competition, sponsored by the English-Speaking Union, was held at the La Jolla Playhouse on March 6. More than 100 people showed up to watch students from 21 local high schools present a Shakespearean sonnet and monologue. The five finalists then offered those prepared presentations, as well as a cold reading from “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” The judges for the semi-finals were UCSD’s Walt Jones and La Jolla Playhouse’s Alison Horsley and Jeannette Horn. It was an intense conversation, and a very difficult decision, for the judges of the Finalists – David Ellenstein (North Coast Rep artistic director), Charlie Oates (new chair of UCSD’s Theater Dept.) and yours truly. After much animated discussion, we named Erin Capistrano (Academy of Our Lady of Peace; teacher, Kathleen Herb) the runner-up and David Armstrong of University of San Diego High (teacher, Brian Bennink ) as the 2005 winner. Now David gets to compete in New York in April, performing a Hamlet soliloquy and sonnet 116. Competition will be stiff; there are 80 branches of the E-SU nationwide. While in New York, the kids are wined and dined, housed together, and taken to the theater and other sights and highlights, leading up to the Semi-Finals and Finals on April 25. The winner of the national competition receives a 2-week trip to Oxford, and is honored by the American Academy of Achievement in Washington, D.C. The national runner-up gets $1000 and the third place performer is presented with $500. In the past 10 years, San Diego students have placed in the Finals and snagged first, second or third place six times. We rock!
.. Speaking of putting yourself out there, consider the All City Auditions. I attended the first day of the 18th incarnation of this terrific event. I must confess; I was an All-City virgin. But no more! (I got a great deal of pleasure, and I definitely didn’t feel like I’d been screwed!) I saw 53 Equity and non-Equity singers and non-singers – and it was a total treat – especially since there were so many fresh new faces. Everyone was poised, energized, prepared. Cris O’Bryon proved a spectacular accompanist (but I know that; he plays for – and musical directs — the Pattés!); he gave an excellent and appropriate spin to each number, and that really heightened the performances. The youngest auditioners – 9 year-old Ian Brininstool and 8 year-old Bibi Valderrama — ended the segments, and knocked everyone’s sox off, with their adorableness, ability and aplomb. One thing that struck me, though. So many folks did songs or monologues that didn’t spotlight their strengths (surprisingly, quite the opposite at times). This is a showcase, and one would hope the performance would feature the best each actor/singer has to offer. It was startling that coaches, teachers or directors had chosen or approved some of these selections. Same goes for the clothing worn; not all showed the performer in the best light. But that’s just one person’s opinion. Local theaters, large and small, were very well represented, the event was excellently organized and run. Bravo to all those brave souls; it was a tough – but appreciative – crowd.
… QUOTE OF THE WEEK: How ‘bout this one, written about local playwright Jack Shea , after “La Table,” his darkly comic take on the machinations leading up to the Vietnam peace talks, opened last weekend at the Black Box Theatre in Palm Springs – starring talented ex-San Diegan Rick Stevens! According to Michael Felci of The Desert Sun, “With the recent passing of Arthur Miller, there appears to be an opening for the next great American playwright. And for all we know, 2004 Palm Springs Internationals Playwriting Competition winner Jack Shea may be ready to fill that void.” Whew! Heady company (and comparison) indeed.
.. Other local guy makes good… Director Ole Kittleson , who staged a knockout production of “Trolls,” the gay musical, in San Diego two seasons ago, will be directing the show Off Broadway this May. Produced by its creators, Bill Dyer and Dick DeBenedictis , the funny, campy show will run at the Actors’ Playhouse. “Trolls” had a successful 5-month run in L.A. and ran for three months at 6th @ Penn Theatre. You go, guy! A new cast will take over in New York…. But try finding a drag queen who looks as good as Leigh Scarritt!
NOW, FOR THIS WEEK’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ LIST
“Arms and the Man” – beautifully directed and acted, gorgeously costumed. A stellar production all around.
At Moonlight’s Avo Theatre, though March 20.
“Pageant” – where the girls are guys and the competition is ferocious. Loads of smarm and charm, and a lot of laughs.
At Cygnet Theatre, through April 17.
“Vigil” – Ron Choularton at his darkly hilarious best. A reprise of his beloved, prize-winning performance.
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through March 27.
“Private Fittings” – frothy, frivolous, Feydeau farce, updated and upended – done up, Des-style – and really done well.
At La Jolla Playhouse, through March 27.
“Thunder at Dawn” – a timely/timeless tale of soldiers on desert duty. Taut, intense and provocative.
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through March 20.
“When the World Was Green” – Kirsten Brandt’s beautifully spare, precise farewell to Sledge and San Diego. Understated, evocative design and performances.
At Sledgehammer Theatre, through March 13.
“I Just Stopped By to See the Man” – Blues in the Night. Director Seret Scott has marshaled an outstanding cast – and they all beautifully sing the blues. Lovely production.
On the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, EXTENDED through March 20.
Caesar got his mid-March… but your friends won’t turn on you – if you take ‘em to the theater!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.