By Pat Launer
There was bigotry and malice
On ‘Saturday Night at the Palace.’
But a tuneful 12th Night
And a Fritz Blitz delight
Traded comic and cool for callous.
Question: If you attend two “12th Nights,” does it add up to 24 evenings of theater? A pair of quite distinct productions in town right now, but they do have commonalities. Let us compare them to a summer’s eve.
Silliness? Check. Both the Poor Players and New Village Arts productions go for the belly-laughs, often aiming below the belt (and sometimes, that’s Borscht).
Pathos? Yes again. Sympathy is aroused for both Malvolios (a slicked-down, mannered Richard Baird at Poor Players and a pompous, patronizing Tim West at NVA), after he is badly abused by Sir Toby Belch (a slovenly, Fat-Jack-Falstaff portrayal by Max Macke versus a well-tailored, rather subdued and fairly stately Walter Murray — drunk though he frequently may be, he’s never out of control).
Sexiness? Nope on both counts. Maria is smartly, saucily played in both productions (Crystal Verdon at PP, Lisell Gorell-Getz at NVA), but she isn’t much of a “wench” in either.
The antics of Aguecheek? On that one, NVA wins hands-down. Francis Gercke is at his uproarious, pratfall best, making the errant knight, the antic Sir Andrew, a boffo buffoon whose every flamboyantly klutzy exit is accompanied by the sound of shattering glass.
Melancholy? Poor Players wins on that one. Their Illyrian Duke, Orsino (Brandon Walker) is absolutely Hamletian in his lovesick dejection. Capable and dapper-looking Nick Cordileone comes out of his despondency a lot faster, since it was never that deep to begin with. Both productions have homoerotic intimations, what with two ‘supposed’ men bonding very closely, and two real women getting it on (though in each case, one’s in drag).
Beauty and infatuation? A dead heat. As Olivia, the object of Orsino’s rejected affection, both Tara Denton (at PP) and Jennifer Austin (NVA) are lovely. Denton plays her attraction to young Cesario like an adolescent in heat. Austin, draped in gorgeous gowns, is more sophisticated, less nubile, but equally effective. She’s submerged in much deeper mourning, black-clad handmaidens serenading her with “Agnus Dei.’
Clowning? Feste isn’t played for big laughs in either production. Nick Kennedy’s wise-fool is a ragtag beggar in a jester’s cap. At NVA, Matt Davis is nattily attired in a white suit, pink tie. He’s definitely got the graceful, Gatsby look, and he’s the glue that holds the production — and the concept — together. A statuesque presence, he cavorts, sings repeatedly (and extremely well) and plays piano like crazy, giving the ’20s feel to the piece that director Brendon Fox was shooting for. It’s really only the costumes and the music (amusing insertions from ballads to Charlestons to Keystone Kops) that carry the conceit. It doesn’t add much to the play, but it looks divine (costume designs by Leslie Malitz).
And the cross-dressing? Both women manage the Viola/Cesario switch with polish and grace. Beth Everhart is both beautiful and handsome. Julie Jacobs is just a wonder. She manages to make a truly convincing young man and a very appealing one at that. She also looks incredibly like her twin Sebastian (Brennan Taylor). It was amusing to think of Diep Huynh (also onstage) and Julie trading secrets and swapping moves; he played a man/woman in “M. Butterfly” in the spring and she does the woman/man thang here.
And the language? Close call. Poor Players, who devote themselves to the Bard, specialize in making the text crystal clear. There still are a couple of actors who manage it less well, but by and large, clarity is their hallmark. And they didn’t even have the benefit of the award-winning Shakespearean scholar/actor, Dakin Matthews, as their dramaturge. At NVA, most, but not all, the language is handled well. There are some speedy moments that elude articulatory precision. Julie Jacobs is especially adept and all her speeches sparkle with the wit, wisdom and poetry of the Master.
So, you be the judge. Two 12ths, one weekend. 24 for the price of one (NVA’s production is free). See ’em both and compare. Bardolators, unite!
Oh, What a Night…
In the 1980s, South Africa was seriously under the sway of a monstrous political and social system. An Afrikaans word meaning “separation” or more literally, “aparthood,” apartheid was a policy of racial segregation and discrimination enforced by the white minority; it lasted from 1948 to 1990.
In the 1970s, Athol Fugard, Barney Simon and Paul Slabolepszy, among others, formed the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. All of the influential and political South African playwrights of that time (and since) were produced there. Fugard introduced many of his works at the Market, including the disturbing “Master Harold… and The Boys” (1982). About that same time, Slabolepszy wrote “Saturday Night at the Palace,“ which won the Amstel Award for playwriting and was later made into a film (1987). Surprisingly, the play didn’t make its American debut until 2002. Both Fugard’s and Slabolepszy’s plays paint a darkly disturbing, microcosmic picture of South African society, showing how even seemingly “civil” whites could get caught up in the discriminatory groundswell.
“Saturday Night” was based on a real incident, a few paragraphs Slabolepszy read in the newspaper about a roadhouse tragedy. He set his play in 1982, eight years before the demise of apartheid, at a remote, rundown diner (Rocco’s Burger Palace) on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Two young white Afrikaners, still reeling from a night of partying, haul their broken-down motorcycle up to the eatery, just as the sole Zulu waiter is closing up for the night.
After a good deal of playful — and bigoted — banter, we learn that Vince (Andrew Kennedy) has been unemployed, rejected by his housemates, and kicked off the soccer team. Drunk on booze and racist venom, he blames the blacks (kaffirs) for everything that’s gone wrong in his life. His hapless buddy, Forsie (Paul Araujo), is less angry, less intelligent and more reasonable. He’s witnessed Vince’s arrogant, loutish behavior before, and he tries fruitlessly to keep the conflict from escalating. The waiter, September (Quardell Scott), socially powerless but seething beneath the surface, becomes the target of Vince’s hatred and wrath, with fatal results.
Although the build is slow at first, the black-white hostility reaches an explosive peak under Claudio Raygoza’s muscular direction. His cast is exceptional. Scott, in his small but pivotal role, is mostly silent and stoic, a victim of these thugs and of his society. Araujo’s Forsie is pitiful, ineffectual, and in his own way, contemptible. He’s both awed and intimidated by Vince; his ultimate ineptitude is staggering. Kennedy, a newcomer to San Diego, is astonishing. And terrifying. He is the bully’s bully. Casually cruel, ruthlessly amoral. His relentless debasement and devastation of both stranger and friend are excruciating. The play is so brutal and intense, it makes you squirm. But the performances are so riveting, you can’t even force yourself to turn away. This isn’t just a piece of history; abject intolerance and hate crimes are alive and well all over the world. You can’t ignore it when you’re up this close to the devastating action.
The extremely talented Raygoza, who did so well last year with Beckett’s “Endgame” (as actor and director), has scored another triumph. Here, he also designed the set, an authentically funky, rundown diner in the wilderness, with wood shutter-flaps and slender fingers of grass thrusting out of the parched brown earth.
This co-production of Raygoza’s newly renamed Ion Theatre (formerly Iris Theatre), and Floyd Gaffney’s Common Ground Theatre, is a terrific collaboration. If you can take it, it demands to be seen.
Nothing is on the fritz in the 11thFritz Blitz of New Plays by California Playwrights. The first two weeks have been knockouts. This week’s single, evening-long offering was “Viburnum,” by Doug Field, who’s had several plays produced Off Broadway and in regional theaters. And one at the Fritz two years ago — the wild and wacky “Down South.” Field has a wonderful way with words, and a pitch-perfect sense of women — and men. My friend thought his title was a liability; it refers to a flower in the honeysuckle family, purported to have “the most fragrant scent on earth.” We learn this from Verne, a late middle-aged woman who still laments the loss of her beloved, long-dead mother and the cold distance of her inattentive father — both of whom, she later realized, were depressed.
She’s never been married, she doesn’t have a clue how to interact with males. She seems to live in the past, with her old phonograph and recordings of her mother’s favorite piano pieces. Soon, we meet her companions, an effervescent teenage playwright; a still-hopeful, effusive, 20-30-ish kewpie doll; and a hungover, 40-something derisive cynic. At first, we think they may be loony-bin inmates. But we gradually realize that they are her former selves, who chide and demean her like bitchy sisters, but whom she can’t seem to let go. This dramatic setup for inner monologue and late-life stock-taking was also used by Joe Pintauro in “Beside Herself” (1989, mounted last year at 6th @ Penn) and Edward Albee in “Three Tall Women” (1994; at the San Diego Rep in 1997). Here again, that dramatic structure is used effectively and provocatively.
Katie Rodda (our new Ph.D.!) proves her mettle again with a wonderful cast, superbly directed. Rhona Gold is outstanding (this may be her very best performance ever) as the aging spinster Verne, who can’t seem to escape from her past. She’s warm and wistful, regretful and a bit pathetic, but still hanging on to a shred of hope — and the real possibility of what the teenage writer quaintly calls “a gentleman caller.” Rachael Van Wormer is delightful as that sprightly adolescent, and Wendy Waddell is bubbly and comical as the youngish woman who has “read about” and “studied up” on how to behave on a date. Her anxious, earnest advice is hilarious. Clearly, by the time age 40 was reached, this woman hit her nadir (as so many do), a dark episode of her life glumly captured with amusingly acerbic sarcasm by D. Candis Paule. Terrific ensemble work! And even after its deliciously bittersweet ride, the play won’t let us go. It has a tantalizingly enigmatic ending. Of the four or five people I spoke to, each had a different interpretation of what happened in the post-blackout moments. Now that’s high drama!
Field was reportedly tweaking the script up to the opening; it’s a wonderfully sad-funny creation that deserves a full production somewhere. Soon. Theater producers, take note!!
NEWS UPDATE: UCSD DOES NYC.. and “LOVE” is eternal….
UCSD alums take a bite out of the Big Apple, as recent grads Mat Smart and Christine Albright begin to make their mark. Smart, you may remember, penned the spectacular “The Hopper Collection” for the UCSD Baldwin New Play Festival last spring); now, his “Shoes” is premiering on 45th Street (in the theater district!) by way of the Slant Theatre Project. The piece is set in the not-too-distant future, after “a disastrous, unexplainable event” has prevented people from going out of doors. The luminous Albright performs with four other actors; Emily Pepper (UCSD 2005) designed the costumes.
“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” just celebrated is 250th performance at the Theatre in Old Town. The long-running musical comedy, about romance at all ages and stages, has been produced in 150 cities around the world. The current cast includes three multi-talented SDSU alums: Nick Spear, Rebecca Spear and Susan DeLeon. Rock on!
NOW, ‘DON’T MISS‘:
“Saturday Night at the Palace” — intensely brutal play about South Africa during apartheid. Tautly directed by Claudio Raygoza, with outstanding performances by Paul Araujo, Quardell Scott, and — especially chilling — Andrew Kennedy. Don’t miss it — if you can take it. At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through September 11.
“Twelfth Night” — The Globe’s Brendon Fox directs a local all-star cast in a lovely outdoor production set in the 1920s. And — Bonus! — it’s free!! At the David H. Thompson Performing arts Center at La Costa Canyon High School; through August 22, with benefit performances on August 28 and 29 at “The Folly” in La Jolla.
“Twelfth Night” — Poor Players’ bare-bones production makes light of the highs and underscores the lows — while highlighting the language at all costs. A delight! At Adams Ave Studio through 8/22.
The Fritz Blitz — so far, so fab; this year’s Blitz is shaping up to be the best ever! Two more weekends of amusement, talent and entertainment. At the Lyceum Theatre, through August 29.
“Las Meninas” — Sean Murray does it again! Gorgeous production, wonderfully designed, acted and directed. Comic but unsettling, a fact-based, historical tale. At Cygnet Theatre, through September 12.
“Art” — a lovely pas de trois from a trio of Lamb’s favorites, in an intelligent, thought-provoking play. At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through September 19
Don’t look now, but the summer is waning (are these the infamous Dog Days??). Make the most of it… at the theater. Ruff!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.