By Pat Launer
The Housekeeper’s darkly funny;
Carmen has Passion and Honey
While the Thai King and I avert romance
With that musical question, “Shall We Dance?”
THE SHOW: Carmen , probably the most popular and most beloved opera of all time, written by Georges Bizet in 1875 and set in Seville, Spain early in the 19th century
THE STORY: Carmen is a beautiful gypsy who works in a cigarette factory. Though the young corporal Don José already has a devoted beloved ( Micaëla ), he is smitten and obsessed with the temptress Carmen, even taking the rap and going to jail for her when he lets her escape after her arrest for injuring another girl in a factory brawl. Later, Carmen sings and dances enticingly at Lillas Pastià’s Inn , along with her friends Mercedes and Frasquita . She is admired by all the men, but especially Lieutenant Zuniga and the torero (matador) Escamillo . In a jealous conflict with the Captain, and after failing to return to his regiment, Don José is forced to join the gypsy smuggler band. Carmen soon tires of Don José and goes off with Escamillo ; Don José’s all-consuming passion and jealousy lead to tragedy. At the bullring where Escamillo is triumphant, Don José throws himself at Carmen and begs her to start a new life with him. When she openly declares her love for the torero, Don José stabs Carmen and falls despairingly on her body.
THE PLAYERS/ THE PRODUCTION: Carmen , above all, should be colorful and exciting, and Carmen (the character) should be seductive and irresistible. Unfortunately, the San Diego Opera’s seventh go at the masterwork is neither. This co-production with Opéra de Montréal and the Canadian Opera Company is set in some unnamed Latin American country in the 1930s-40s. The political backdrop is augmented, but the costume palette is muted. The fights are insubstantial and unbelievable; the choreography (Juanita Franco) is minimal. And the sets range from an aged, abandoned church for the gypsy hideout to an angular, postmodern stadium for the bullring. Michael Yeargin’s ‘curtain’ is the most fascinating design element; it is a dramatic abstract of bold colors, rent by a fissure that seems to represent the cultural divide among the characters and perhaps even a broken heart. With the brashly obvious symbolism of love and death, the drop is frequently splashed with crimson light. At the beginning of each act, the two parts split and recede, to reveal the ensuing action. The costumes (Francois St.- Aubin ) are a hodgepodge. Some men wear fedoras; others, serapes. The women sport faded flower house-dresses. Nothing is sensuous or suggestive. Only Carmen’s ever-present fringe bespeaks her gypsy background – trimming her red dress for the flamenco Inn scene and a surprisingly virginal white for her death.
Throughout, the rich-voiced mezzo, Marina Domashenko , who has made this her signature role, is saucy and insouciant, but not bewitching and dangerous. Her voice is more sultry than her presence in this production. She’s wonderful with the castanets at the Inn , and shows the potential for more grace, fire and treachery than seems to have been encouraged here. Despite her teasing flirtations, there is never any heat between her and tenor César Hernández’s Don José; still, their duets are excellently sung, and he has his strongest vocal and dramatic moments at the end. Swaggering baritone Malcolm MacKenenzie has the perfect energy and bluster for Escamillo , and his interactions and duets with Domashenko sizzle. Barbara Divis brings heartbreaking emotion and a pure, aching soprano to the thankless role of Micaëla , and as Carmen’s smart/funny sidekicks (their card-reading scene is especially good) , Malinda Haslett and Lisa Agazzi are wonderful. As the Damon Runyonesque smuggler thugs, Jeff Mattsey and Beau Palmer make a comical duo. James Scott Sikon is potent in the opening number but dramatically, bass-baritone Wayne Tiggs barely registers as the lieutenant Zuniga, though he holds his own quite well vocally.
Tony Award-winning theater director Mark Lamos has tamped down all the fireworks, though the San Diego Symphony, under the baton of Karen Keltner, gives it their vibrant all. The signature songs, the “Habanera” (though this Carmen’s no “wild bird”) and “Seguidilla,” the “Toreador” and “Chanson Bohème” are all well executed, but the crowd scenes feel overpopulated and unnecessarily crowded, and except for the opening street scene, the hordes have little to do. Even the seven dancers are under-utilized. The singing is by far the most satisfying part of the entire effort.
At the second intermission, the opera aficionado sitting next to me left in a huff, grumbling, “This is the most boring ‘Carmen’ I’ve ever seen!” Indeed, the politics were present, but not the passion, or the steamy sexuality.
THE LOCATION: The Civic Theatre, through April 5.
THE SHOW: Passion and Honey , a reprise production of a Calvin Manson creation that received the 2002 Associated Community Theatres Aubrey Award for Best Direction of a Drama. A presentation by Manson’s Ira Aldridge Repertory Players (he is founder, producing director and artistic director)
THE STORY: Unlike many other Ira Aldridge productions, this is not a musical revue, or the musical bio of a jazz legend. But it has the same structure of fragmented segments loosely linked. The piece is subtitled “Original Choreo -Poems,” and these 47 separate ‘monologues’ (with a few ‘duets’ and group arrangements) are indeed very personal, emotional poetic pieces written by Manson, chronicling his own passage through the ‘60s and beyond, including the death of JFK and a beloved relative, intra- and inter-racial interactions, and youthful brashness and bellicosity that give way to more mature sensitivity. There’s a great deal about love – from a male and a female perspective. Anthony Bell, Sr. bookends the presentation as a young man looking back, returning to his old neighborhood, where his recollections and reminiscences are enacted in his imagination.
THE PLAYERS/ THE PRODUCTION: Manson has directed inventively; this is his most successful production to date. Though plot isn’t his forte, poetry is. He captures the essence of the black experience, and of the universal quandaries of love sought, gained, lost, lamented. The basic brick-wall set (designed by Manson’s 15 year-old daughter, Maisha Banks Manson), is simple but a little precarious, with steps center-stage that required some fancy footwork at times. Some of the performers are making their stage debuts, but they bring credibility and genuine emotion to the task; each had at least one shining moment. The intense, passionate love poems are the most moving, the angry political/racial pieces the most inspiring.
Best of Show: Bell in the combative/contrite “Contender Always” and the melodic “She Was, Is Jazz”; Nicole Bradley in the touching, light skin/dark skin “Black Girl” (by Manson and Bernadette Pitts-Wiley) and the gut-wrenching “Black Girls Learn Love Hard”; Charmen Jackson in the amorous “I Want to Touch You” and “Hot Chocolate”; Charles Bruce in the surprisingly gender-reversed “Can You Make Love to My Mind?” and the sexy “If I Were the Water of Your Bath”; Amber Rose West in the healing “The Hurt Ended Today” and the regret-filled “You Should Have Told Me”; and Cedric Damon in the sensuous “Sometimes I Touch You.” Together, the women powerfully tell their brothers how to “Step into Manhood.” The pain of racism and the politics of an era emerge in “Wade in the Water” (achingly performed by Bradley) and “I Was There” (Bruce). There are more segments than needed, more love poems than necessary. But the fabric of a life, a time, a people, a progression is stitched together from these colorful, well delivered and often-memorable poetic pieces.
THE LOCATION: Express Stage, inside Acoustic Expression in North Park , through April 2.
NOTE: A great new space, right across from the newly renovated Birch North Park Theatre. If other companies pitch in, we might be able to develop another hot new venue – for up to 120 seats. Check it out!
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
EVERYBODY OUGHTA HAVE A MAID
THE SHOW: The Housekeeper , a nasty little comic romance written in the early ‘80s by playwright/screenwriter James Prideaux
THE STORY: A pompous, third-rate, pseudo-intellectual writer unwittingly hires a bag lady to take care of him and his fading Victorian mansion. The homeless, dead-end klepto and the pathetic, talentless Mama’s boy turn out to be drowning in sexual repression, class distinction and self-delusion, which of course makes them a perfect match. But they have to hate, chase and try to murder each other before they come clean, reveal their innermost secrets and literally fall all over each other. There are a few plot twists, but this is no “Sleuth,” and the play is ultimately both preposterous and predictable.
THE PLAYERS/ THE PRODUCTION: Rhys Green, in his first directorial foray into black comedy, has helped Dale Morris and Grace Delaney to master an aptly brisk pace and fine comic timing. But there has to be a stronger sense of menace to the piece. And the character of Manley (Morris) has to take a more pronounced emotional journey. He should be far more tightly wrapped at the outset so there’s more at stake when he explodes and unravels. Morris is too avuncular to start; he needs to be more Norman Bates than Alistair Cooke. Delaney has a blast throughout as the loony-tunes Annie Dankworth , who’s gleefully inept, lazy, blunt, coarse and denigrating (of self and others); all that — alas for the actress — never really changes. Delaney is amusingly attired in mismatched schmattas that repeatedly prompt her to promote her pulchritude. Doug Lay’s costumes are spot-on, but when Annie shows up in the second act wearing an evening gown (of sorts) she needs more flashy jewelry (as described in the text)– and a tiara wouldn’t hurt, either. It’s ultimately the direction and acting that have to carry this less-than-satisfying script, which is neither as dark nor as screwball as probably intended; a neo-vaudevillian ramp-up of the action would help. But for what it is, with its pointless, cascading absurdities, it’s given a fairly good run.
THE LOCATION: 6th @ PennTheatre , through April 26.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Good Bet
A new play, a staged reading, a post-show discussion. Mo’oleleo Performing Arts Company presented its first event of 2006 to a full house at Diversionary Theatre on Monday night. The piece, called The Adoption Project: TRIAD, was written by Seattle-based actor/writer Kimber Lee, with additional research by Mo’olelo’s founder/artistic director Seema Sueko and participating actor Kathryn Venverloh . Co-directed by Lee and Sueko, the trio of performers was outstanding, each focused, intensely committed actor creating several characters: Jill Drexler as a tight-assed adoptive mother … and Barbara Walters, among others; Kathryn Venverlogh as the adoptive daughter, who in an unnecessary plot point, becomes pregnant. And a recent arrival, seen locally in Mo’oleleo’s A Piece of My Heart, talented Nicole Gabriella Scipione , as the mother who gave her daughter up at birth, but not before holding her just one time, a memory she can never shake. Wonderful, heartfelt work all around, including the direction.
But the piece is so overstuffed with ideas, information and perspectives, it feels less like a play than infotainment for a professional conference. At this point in its development, it works better as a reading than it would as a fully staged production. The play features painfully few direct interactions among the characters and little drama, although the subject itself is deeply fraught. The tone switches wildly as we move from poignant monologues to teary confessionals to silly sitcom knockoffs. The writing, too, ranges from poetic and heartrending to adolescent hip-cynical-smarmy. Maybe there were too many cooks in this kitchen. They would’ve done better to stick with the character triangle of the title, avoiding the TV digressions and ‘handwriting on the wall’ (a primary element of the stage directions, capably read by Sueko). For this effort to fly, and its subject is certainly relevant and important, it needs simplification and a clearer image of exactly what it wants to do and be. But kudos to all involved for trying something new and bringing so much passion to the presentation.
A fun reprise – and you’re invited! For FREE!
In 2004, David Freedman‘s Mendel, Inc. was a sellout in a staged reading that was part of the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival. Now, the REP wants to re-view the piece, so we’re doing another one- nighter – TUESDAY, APRIL 4 at 7:30pm in the Lyceum Space. This comic piece, a hit on Broadway in 1929, was written by a former comedy writer for Fanny Brice. It focuses on the ups and downs (and humor!) of the Jewish immigrant experience in early 20th century New York . Matt Henerson portrays the shleppily good-hearted inventor, Mendel, and I play his wife. Peter van Norden and Ralph Elias are back as my brother and brother-in-law, the comic duo, Strudel and Schnapps. Ari Lerner (pictured) is my son, Sonia Bender plays my daughter and Chris Williams is her suitor. Last time, the audience loved it, and so did the playwright’s 82 year-old son (also named David Freedman). You’re sure to get a kick out of it, too! Just show up: admission is FREE.
YOU SAW IT HERE FIRST!
Hot off the presses, just announced April 1: Lee Blessing’s A Body of Water, which recently closed at the Old Globe, was awarded the Steinberg ATCA (American Theatre Critics Association) New Play Award for 2006. The honor, which includes a cash prize of $25,000 (the largest monetary prize for a national playwriting award) was presented at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville . First produced in June 2005 at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, the provocatively enigmatic play concerns a man and woman who face existential hell after waking up one morning with no memory of who or where they are. New Play Citations also went to Adam Rapp for Red Light Winter and the late, great August Wilson for Radio Golf, the final installment in his 10-play cycle about the African American experience in the 20th century. This is the first ATCA award for Rapp, the second for Blessing and the fourth for Wilson . There were six finalists selected from 25 eligible plays that premiered outside New York City in 2005.
TAB! YOU’RE IT
Here’s my little photographic memento of an evening with Tab Hunter – at dinner and onstage, where I interviewed him for the Distinguished Author Series at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center in La Jolla . He brought some wonderful film clips – Tab with Sophia Loren, Debbie Reynolds, Natalie Wood, Tallulah Bankhead – and nervously singing his chart-topping “Young Love” on The Perry Como Show. In person, he was ever so charming and chatty, but a bit disingenuous. Though his partner of 23 years was with him (the energetic, high-octane Allan Glaser) and Tab wrote about his closeted and overt homosexuality quite a bit in his best-selling memoir (“Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star”), he was extremely evasive in the interview and Q&A. As one somewhat disappointed gay theatergoer put it, “After all these months on a book tour, hasn’t he realized yet that that’s what everyone – straight and gay – comes to hear?” Ah well. It made for a nice memory nevertheless.
WILLY’S NIGHT AT THE OPERA
“Shakespeare Goes to the Opera,” thanks to the SDSU Opera Theater. In this dramatic presentation, April 28-30 in Smith Recital Hall, you’ll enter the Bard’s private study as characters from A Midsummer Night’s Dream come to entertain Shakespeare with selections from operas that were inspired by some of his greatest works: Midsummer (Britten), Romeo and Juliet (Gounod), Macbeth (Verdi), Hamlet (by French composer Ambroise Thomas) and more. Reservations at 619-594-1696 or at the Music and Dance box office on campus.
GIVE TO THE MAX
New Vision Theatre in Oceanside is holding a special benefit performance of its current show, On Golden Pond, in support of young Maximillian Kalb, who’s afflicted with a rare, life-threatening disability that includes a lack of muscle development. He happens to have one of the most severe cases ever documented. At 4 years old, he’s already had six major surgeries. He uses a special wheelchair which he steers with his head. But he’s still a regular little kid, attending preschool and trying to get along. The benefit performance is Sunday, April 2 ($30 for 4pm reception, 5pm performance). All proceeds go directly to Max’s care. To rsvp , or to just donate, call 760-529-9140.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Critic’s Picks)
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Passion and Honey – personal and universal poems of love, politics and growing up, by Calvin Manson; nicely performed by his Ira Aldridge Repertory Players
At the new Express Stage, inside Acoustic Expression in North Park , through April 2
The Housekeeper – a goofy romantic comedy that isn’t as dark, bleak, funny or screwy as it thinks it is, but the actors are milking every minute (and they could go even further)
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through April 26
The Playboy of the Western World – excellently done (if a wee bit heavy on the accents); skillfully combines all the drama, grisly humor and hero worship Synge intended
New Village Arts at Jazzercise in Carlsbad , through April 1
Intimate Apparel – beautifully conceived production of a heartbreaking turn-of-the-last century story.
At the San Diego Repertory Theatre, through April 9
The Twilight of the Golds – provocative premise, admirable ensemble
At Diversionary Theatre, through April 9
What the Butler Saw – deeply disturbed, hilariously funny. A pitch-perfect black farce, wonderfully acted and comically timed
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through April 30.
My Fair Lady – spectacularly inventive production; beautifully designed, directed, acted and sung
At Cygnet Theatre EXTENDED to May 7.
Don’t be a Fool this April – Go to the theater!
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.