By Pat Launer
Strange bedfellows for a theatrical trio:
A comedy, revue, and ‘ Antony and Cleo.’
‘Reverse Psychology’ will make you glad
To return, evermore, to ‘Forever Plaid.’
QUEEN OF DENIAL
They’re the original superstars. Larger than life. Wealthy and powerful. Immense in their appetites and emotions. Self-assured, self-indulgent. And so overcome with ardor that it changes the course of history. “ Antony and Cleopatra” embody the intertwined twin engines of human energy — passion and reason. And their story shows how an excess of one can obliterate the other.
“A&C” picks up where “Julius Caesar” left off. Rome is ruled by the Second Triumvirate: Octavius Caesar (who controls Western Europe, including Rome ); Lepidus (Africa, with the exception of Egypt ); and Mark Antony, the great military general, who governs Egypt and all the conquered territories East of the Adriatic . When Antony falls deeply and desperately in love with Cleopatra, he abandons two wars and follows her to Alexandria to enjoy a life of frivolity and hedonism. In the larger historical context, theirs is the metaphorical dichotomy between the sensuous, self-satisfying East and the rational, self-denying West (i.e., Egypt vs. Rome ). But Shakespeare’s sharp, unerring focus is on the heart of the matter, on two all-too-human titans who are slaves to passion, at once elevated and destroyed by love. The roles require an astonishing array of emotions and a forceful, riveting onstage presence. It’s another formidable undertaking for the Poor Players.
Producing artistic director Richard Baird is definitely up to the task. His is a formidable Marcus Antonius, a man’s man revered by peers, superiors and underlings, an imposing and confident leader, an assertive, self-assured commander general. But he’s also a teasing, sensual, libidinous lover. And then, when he cedes all power and reason to this love, he is brought to his knees, a weeping, defeated man, still noble but hamstrung, nearly unable to end his shattered life. The man is multi-dimensional and humanly flawed. With all its colors, nuances and permutations, Baird’s performance is breathtaking. You never know which of his bipolar passions he will unleash next. And the object of his unchecked desire?
Amy Meyer makes for a sultry, sexy Cleo. And thanks to Stacie Taylor, Billie Baird and Richard Baird, her every entrance is marked by another striking costume. She has all the requisite beauty, vitality, volatility, manipulative wiles and enchantress enticements; but she lacks a bit of the solidity and potency to be a believable world leader. Emotionally, though, she matches Baird outburst for outburst. Theirs is an over-heated series of interactions, to be sure. Enobarbus, Antony ’s friend and follower, also takes an intense emotional journey in the play. He is one in Shakespeare’s line of loyal comrades, like Hamlet’s Horatio and Lear’s Kent. Though given to the disillusioned cynicism of the veteran soldier, he has a lovely poetic vein; both are excellently mined by Max Macke. He serves as a kind of keen, critical chorus for a good part of the play; after he deserts Antony , he cannot live with himself, and after a final act of his leader’s generosity, dies of grief. Not a subtle performance, but a credible and touching one. As Caesar’s follower, Agrippa, Neil MacDonald does notable work. Director Nick Kennedy doubles as Caesar, Antony ’s great rival, who doesn’t seem as youthful as he’s repeatedly described (especially compared with his peer, Baird, even with the grayed temples). This Caesar is enigmatic: often petulant and disdainful, not as cold or as prudent as expected. The rest of the company is variable, as is often the case in the wild, youthful, sometimes-seeming-to-veer-nearly-out-of-control productions of Poor Players. Their new space provides a wide-open, black box expanse (and no dangerous poles center-stage!). The pace is rapid, the action, often zealous and intense. Baird, as always, even in his emotional extremes, provides heft and ballast.
At the Academy of Performing Arts on Alvarado Ct. , through April 10.
He’s been called the modern Molière, the American Aristophanes. From the 1960s through the 1980s, Charles Ludlam was the reigning queen of the Theatre of the Ridiculous in New York , and author of 29 wild, comic plays. (He died in 1987 at age 44, of pneumonia, a complication of AIDS). His Ridiculous Theatrical Company transcended transvestite, drag and gay theater – though there was plenty of that — but Ludlam was sure to include at least one cross-dresser in every play. His legendary genius and folly often combined popular and high art forms, synthesizing wit, parody, vaudeville, farce, melodrama and satire, all the while making sly or blatant references to all sorts of literary and dramatic classics. He himself excelled in drag — and in onstage lunacy. But he never wanted to be pinned down or labeled a gay writer or a purveyor of gay theater. He found such labels limiting. He even considered “camp,” the style of comedy he most frequently employed to skewer society, as a derogatory term, only used to describe gay theater, when the same style would be termed “biting social satire” in a straight theater piece. Well, there’s more camp than biting social satire in the Diversionary/Vantage Theatre co-production of “Reverse Psychology,” Ludlam’s 1980 farce that takes potshots at psychotherapy, its patients and practitioners, and the avant-garde art world.
Set in New York (where else?), the play concerns a husband and wife, both wacko psychiatrists (is that redundant?) who are having affairs with each other’s patients, who also happen to be husband and wife. Freddie (Michael Rich Sears) is a talentless but supercilious artist, and his wife, Eleanor (Michelle DeFrancesco ), is a full-blown neurotic who shops compulsively and has emotional max-outs and meltdowns. It’s supposed to be madcap and zany. But as directed by Robert Salerno (with last-minute doctoring by Tim Irving – alas, probably too late to rescue the production), it’s clunky, heavy-handed, forced and generally unfunny. Everyone is trying too hard (though, in the case of men who don’t seem to have the foggiest notion of what to do with a scantily clad woman, perhaps not hard enough). There is an excess of screaming (especially in the case of Jennipher Lewis). As the really unstable head- shrinker , Phil Johnson is playing his usual lounge-lizard (he might even be wearing his own wardrobe for that oft-assumed character, though costumes are credited to Shulamit Nelson). With the exception of the adorable, ditsy/loopy DeFrancesco , not one of these people seems in the slightest bit believable. They’re too over-the-top for credulity, and not over enough to be farcical or outrageous. David Weiner’s alluring set is as schizo as the play itself: one-half harem/lair, one-half couched office. Robbie Henry’s jocular sound design nails the period and comments on the action while Sara Maines ’ lighting nimbly illuminates the various playing spaces. But overall, I think the play would’ve worked better in drag; maybe that would’ve wrung more comedy from the potentially funny lines.
At Diversionary Theatre, through April 16.
MAD FOR PLAID
Just how many times have I seen “Forever Plaid”? Let’s see, how many vertical and horizontal stripes are there in a plaid cummerbund ?….. And yet, I was willing to give it another go, since the cast at the Welk sounded so enticing. And they’re about to move on to other glories, as the next show, “ Nunsense ,” opens at the end of this month. Never wanting to miss a good thing, up I went to Escondido . And I was really glad I did. This was one of the funniest “Plaids” I’ve seen. Every time Ryan Drummond came out, as the bespectacled Smudge, I busted a gut. This man is hilarious! His facial and physical comedy are nonpareil. The ever-talented Steve Gunderson could, of course, play Sparky while in a coma; he’s inhabited the role in San Diego several times, as well as in New York , L.A. , Vegas, Atlanta and Boston , toting up more than 2000 performances in all. He was even the original Sparky in “Forever Plaid: The Holiday Edition” (“Plaid Tidings”) at Pasadena Playhouse. Now he’s back, funnier than ever, biteplate in hand (or mouth, or pocket). Kevin McMahon plays the nose-bleeder, Jinx, a role he’s also undertaken on national tour and other productions. And David Humphrey is adorable as the pseudo-suave Frankie, though he’s appeared in other productions as Sparky (but not while Gunderson’s in the same state!), including at the Theater in Old Town, Moonlight and the Starlight/ Sycuan collaboration; all told, he’s logged in some 1600 performances in the show.
So these guys know what they’re doing, and they’ve been Plaid together in several productions. The resulting flawless cohesion is both physical and vocal. The harmonies are glorious, and these guys multi-task with their multi-talents all the time. Let’s see, in the “Ed Sullivan” scene alone, there’s juggling, harmonica, accordion and piano playing (the latter from that ole piano pro, Gunderson) and even fire-eating (Drummond – yikes!). They’re backed by the musical dexterity of Justin Gray on piano and Richard Maloof on bass. ( Maloof actually performed for years on the “Lawrence Welk ” TV show! – from 1967-1982). It all seems so … incestuous. Anyway, it’s terrific fun and gorgeously sung. The design (uncredited) is more elaborate than most “Plaid” productions; there are even some special effects (lighting by Jennifer Edwards, who also serves as stage manager). Larry Raben’s direction hews close to Stuart Ross’s original ( Raben was his assistant director in the original Off Broadway production and he played Sparky in early workshop productions). Ross still maintains control, but it seems that Raben has snuck in a few extra little juicy additions that really make the show sing. So catch it if you can… before these guys croon that final chord this weekend and return to the great Plaid paradise in the sky.
At the Welk Theatre, through March 27.
HELLO AGAIN, DOLLY!
There we were in Shiley Studio A at KPBS, honoring the Shileys for another gift of $1 million to the station – earmarked specifically for arts programming. And besides the fountain of chocolate and crème brûlée , the most tasty treat of the evening was entertainment by the inimitable Carol Channing . Eighty-four and still going (glowing, growing) strong, she confided that she’d been asked to do an ad campaign for Energizer. Well, that makes sense. She’s still touring. And she recently got married again – to a guy she had a crush on in junior high school – and hadn’t seen for 70 years! She came up on the little stage, in her tap shoes and be- ribboned pigtails, and just entranced everyone, telling stories, doing impressions, spouting wisdom, even singing and dancing a bit. Her tap partner (who mostly danced solo – terrifically) was 8 year-old Alex Maloof – who has an amazing amount of poise and presence (directors, take note!). Carol said some very very funny things, and some really important things… about her lifelong experiences onstage and her “far more than 5000 performances’ in “Hello, Dolly.” Even in the face of colds, bugs, flus , cancer, broken ribs (she did three shows in a wheelchair), she swears she never missed a performance. She found it “healing” to give herself to the audience. Put your soul into it, she said, and you’ll get theirs. Always think of them (the audience) first when you’re performing. And when you do impressions, she counseled, do them from a place of warmth and heart, and no one will ever be offended. She was really inspirational – and charming to Darlene Shiley, and to Craig Noel. It was a delight to be there… And when her husband nudged her to “do Ephraim,” Carol talked about the importance of the spine of a play, and how she found it for “Dolly” in this one soliloquy when Dolly speaks to her dead husband, Ephraim, and tells him she’s ready to “re-join the human race.” That’s what it’s all about, she said, for all of us. She did the piece flawlessly, meaningfully, and then she launched into a slow, low, a capella rendition of “Before the Parade Passes By.” The ultimate trouper; no parade will ever pass her by.
LILACS AND LOVING WORDS
It was as if he’d invited some friends over for an intimate, informal visit. David Cohen graciously greeted the audience – most of whom, it seemed, he actually knew by name, and welcomed them to his 14th annual recitation of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d ,” Walt Whitman’s heartfelt and gut-wrenching elegy to Lincoln and all the war dead. Each year, Cohen recalls those who’ve died of AIDS, and he chooses one particular person to honor and remember. This year, it was Broadway star Larry Kert , the original Tony in “West Side Story,” and the Tony-winner for his portrayal of Bobby in Sondheim’s “Company.” Cohen said he felt a special affinity for Kert that he couldn’t quite define or explain, but he is, he said poetically, “woven into the fabric of my soul”; Cohen choked up repeatedly when speaking of the golden-voiced tenor. David Humphrey (on his only night off from “Plaid”) did a lovely job singing two of the songs that represented Kert’s best-known work : “Maria” and “Being Alive.” John Diaz, from Jean Isaac’s San Diego Dance Theatre, choreographed his own heartfelt homage, to the “Somewhere” ballet from “West Side Story.” And Cohen read a magnificent letter from Carol Lawrence, who’d starred with Kert in “West Side Story,” and who retold the fabulous story of their joint audition (her 13th!) for Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Harold Prince, Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents , back in 1957. It was funny and touching, and brought Kert alive for the rapt and appreciative audience. Before Cohen began his beautiful, lyrical rendition of the Whitman poem, he asked if anyone wanted to add flowers to his lilacs, or other names to the list of those remembered. Almost everyone had someone they’d lost and wanted to honor. It was a poignant and affecting evening all around. It was sad, though, that there were no representatives of the two beneficiaries of the event proceeds – the Actors Alliance of San Diego and the AIDS service organization called, aptly enough, Being Alive.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DEAR STEVIE…
Talk about a Birthday Bash! In honor of Stephen Sondheim’s 75th, New York threw a 12-hour party. Sondheimites — admirers and devotees of the groundbreaking composer/lyricist — started lining up before dawn for “Wall to Wall Sondheim,” a free marathon program featuring a half-century’s who’s who in American theater, including, of course, Sondheim superstars Elaine Stritch and Angela Lansbury . A big-ticket gala was also held this week, but New York gave Sondheim and itself a genuine gift with the gratis event. No clowns were sent in, as far as I know.
MARK YOUR CALENDAR… TO SEE THE TALENT OF TOMORROW TODAY
… SDSU’s 22nd annual Design Performance Jury (discussed in detail last week) will take place on Friday, April 15, from 9:00-2:30 (three separate segments) in the Experimental Theatre on campus. This year’s play is Euripides’ “The Trojan Women.” Get a great glimpse behind-the-scenes… see what it takes to design/create a show, what a jury of theater professionals thinks about the plans and how to develop the ultra-thick skin theatermaking requires.
… UCSD’s Baldwin New Play Festival 2005 runs this year from April 11-23 and includes four world premieres by the talented MFA playwrights, directed by MFA directors and performed by the school’s nationally-acclaimed MFA actors. This is always a provocative and impressive event. The plays are a diverse group, embracing humor, menace, realism and fantasy: Jews meet Palestinians, Beats meet Greeks, teenage immigrants meet Homeland Security, and real estate developers meet un-gentrified locals. There will also be one staged reading, written by faculty fellow and UCSD alum Ken Weitzman, whose new play was commissioned by Washington D.C. ’s Arena Stage.
ASK AND YE SHALL RECEIVE
Since the time that I praised the recent staged reading of “The Allergist’s Wife” (Carlsbad Playreaders ) and said a full production should be done posthaste, Dale Morris has acquired the rights to the hilarious Charles Busch comedy. Look for it at 6th@Penn this summer.
CAN YOU BELIEVE …
Advance ticket sales for the Broadway debut of the ‘Holy Grail’ musical, “Monty Python’s Spamalot ,” have topped $18 million. Whew! The reviews weren’t universally ecstatic (the AP called it “comic lunacy” and the Times said it was “resplendently silly”), but Pythonites are unswervingly loyal and ever-enthusiastic (wink-nudge).
NOW, FOR THIS WEEK’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ LIST
“ Antony and Cleopatra” – a colossal Antony and a seductive Cleo make for a wild ride, a highly sensual (if sometimes uneven) production by those antic, “No holds Bard” players.
Poor Players at the Academy of Performing Arts on Alvarado Ct. Rd.; through April 10.
“Forever Plaid” – terrific cast, perfect setting, side-splitting laughs. Last chance!
At the WelkTheatre , through March 27.
“Vigil” – Ron Choularton at his darkly hilarious best. A reprise of his beloved, prize-winning performance.
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, EXTENDED through March 31.
Private Fittings – frothy, frivolous, Feydeau farce, updated and upended – done up, Des-style – and done well.
At La Jolla Playhouse, through March 27.
“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.
“The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron” – a fun date night, which shows both genders a few of their more amusing and infuriating foibles.
At the Theatre in Old Town , ongoing.
Spring has officially sprung, the Equinox has passed, and Daylight Savings Time is upon us… yippee! The days are longer – but you can still spend your nights at the theater!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.