By Pat Launer
On my Twelfth Night home, with Suitcase in hand
I hit the Ally Way in McDonald-land
And saw more of the Actors Fest’s sleight-of-hand.
It’s not hard to understand why classics scholar and feminist Marianne McDonald would be especially attracted to Euripides’ “Alcestis.” The story focuses on a woman who acts much more heroically than the so-called ‘heroes’ who surround her. McDonald describes “Alcestis” as a Satyr play which, providing a kind of comic relief from the tragedies, typically included burlesque elements, a bit of questionable taste and a happy ending.
Her modern adaptation, which received a reading last September at Sledgehammer, was originally commissioned and presented in New York (2002) by director Seret Scott, with an African American cast. “The Ally Way” has metamorphosed yet again, with several of last year’s cast members reappearing in vastly different roles. The plot concerns Adrian (Admetus to Euripides), here a disillusioned, philandering Secretary of State whose stalwart, long-suffering wife, Alysin, takes a bullet meant for him in an assassination attempt. Standing in for the hedonist Heracles in the original is an arrogant visiting neurosurgeon who saves the day — and the wife and the marriage. There is a strong attempt to be true to Euripides (though in the original, the heroine dies) while injecting topical references, humor, music and dance. It isn’t a thoroughly successful endeavor, though the second act is much more grounded than the first.
The thematic crux is sacrifice and compromise — in work and in marriage. But the production throws in everything AND the kitchen sink: theater in-jokes, Laugh-In one-liners on multiple TV screens, ‘Donna Reed Dancers,’ rag-doll kids, drag queens, audience interaction, hypersexuality and Misogyny Through the Ages — with quotes from men, of course, and from women like good ole Phyllis Schlafly. We haven’t come such a long way, Baby, after all.
As directed by Robert Salerno, the piece is so far over the top, it’s hard to see the forest, the trees or the storyline. There is more antic stage business than you can shake ten shticks at. And there is little consistency of style — even insofar as some female roles being played by men (Douglas Lay a lot more convincingly than Terence Burke), and some people wearing too little (Melissa Hamilton) or bellowing too much (Wayne Jordan).
Best in Show, and most compelling, are those who try to create more of a character than a caricature. Ed Hollingsworth is nicely centered as Adie, a guy who actually, believably, learns a lesson and changes his life. Ken Oberlander is funny (if overly hysterical at times) as his paranoid/hyperactive CIA operative, Bruce; Wayne Jordan gives the only understated performance of the evening, casually cruel as Adie’s selfish, golf-obsessed Dad; and Giancarlo Ruiz is delightfully comical and credible as the narcissistic but humanistic doctor. Most of the actors aren’t put to their best use, particularly Lay, who’s a consummate Equity performer; his Ally is far from endearing, and played on one fairly angry, put-upon note. But his ad-libs are a hoot. Hamilton’s nymphomaniacal intern, Monique (just how Clintonesque is this supposed to be??) is far more raunchy and sexually explicit than necessary. Only one of the dancers (Katie Andrews) can dance and few of those singing can sing. Kate Harvey’s ’70’s costumes are clever and cute, but not everything in the production maintains that sense of the ’70s.
There is such a jumble of ideas and styles here that the few genuine laughs get buried in the conceptual rubble. At present, Ally’s Way is all over the map; a straighter road, a less circuitous route, would bring it closer to the desired, Greek-inspired destination.
CROSSED GARTERS, CROSS-DRESSING AND LOVE
Two ‘Saturday Night Fever’ dances in one weekend. Whew! The white-suited moves show up in “The Ally Way” and also in Poor Players’ “Twelfth Night.“ The Poor Players are Bardolators who’ll do whatever it takes to make the old boy relevant. Sometimes this leads to an abundance of base humor, belches and beer cans. But there’s nothing sophomoric about their handling of the language. In their fleet, slightly pared-down versions of Shakespeare’s plays, they underscore the humor, but mine the deeper emotions, too. They pay close attention to the text, clarifying without emoting or declaiming (though there is a good bit of shouting in this production, not always where/when called for). And they appeal to young people like themselves, which is, of course, a very good thing. If you haven’t seen them yet, this may be a great opportunity. Then, next week, you can catch New Village Art’s production of “Twelfth Night” and compare.
In this tale of mistaken identity and identical twins, excess is all. The Duke loves too much, Olivia mourns too much, and Viola woos too wisely and too well. Like fat Jack Falstaff, Sir Toby Belch drinks and carouses too much, and he makes too much sport of others. Olivia’s steward, Malvolio, is too pompous and pretentious; even his comeuppance is extreme.
Director Nick Kennedy paints with a broad brush, but the production is effective. Brandon Walker is aptly lovesick as the Duke, and while she seems wildly adolescent, Tara Denton makes Olivia as capricious as written. Max Macke does another funny turn with the fat-man (he played Falstaff before, and now Toby Belch), and Neil McDonald is amusing as the doltish Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Crystal Verdon’s Maria is more mischievous than lusty, but that works fine. Richard Baird’s Malvolio looks like Anthony Hopkins’ slicked-back, uptight butler in “Remains of the Day,” and he moves with a comical, stylized grace. He makes the character sympathetic at the end, still vengeful but even more hurt and humiliated. We actually feel sorry for him, which doesn’t happen in many productions. He’s guilty of pomposity, after all, not evil. Kennedy’s Feste is enigmatic; dressed like a beggar, he’s a rather despondent fool. Tony Misiano really does look like his twin sister, Viola, and Beth Everhart makes Cesario (Viola in male disguise) a smart, savvy, thoroughly likable bloke. It would’ve been nice to see her blonde and be-femmed again at the end.
Baird and Kennedy, the Players’ co-founders, wear many hats: their collaboration produced nifty ombat scenes. Baird and Billie Baird are responsible for the engaging mix of beachwear and thrift-shop costumes, and Kennedy organized the music. This is a bare-bones, black-box presentation; there’s nothing more than a bench onstage. But that keeps the focus on the language — when it isn’t on the physical comedy. While their production values are modest, Poor Players have a wealth of creativity and imagination, and they enrich the San Diego theater scene.
EMOTIONAL AND LINGUISTIC BAGGAGE
My theater playpal on the night I saw Melissa James Gibson’s “Suitcase, or those that resemble flies from a distance” was actor/academic/writer Kathy Jones. Between us, we’d spent about half a century teaching college. We’d both written dissertations. We both had more than a passing familiarity academic advisors (having them and being them) and factual/linguistic micro-analysis, not to mention T&M (that would be Trivia and Minutia), which is what dissertations are all about. And we both love language. So Gibson’s setup was a no-brainer for us: Two female students trying to finish dissertations which are hopelessly stalled. But it turns out that these barely distinguishable women are also hopelessly stalled. And while their situation was familiar, they became as tedious and repugnant as their dissertation topics.
Jen’s thesis concerns the significance of garbage in the construction of identity; she’s spent the last five years examining the detritus of three randomly selected individuals — without their knowledge. Sallie’s project, tentatively titled “Narrativus Interruptus,” is an attempt to uncover alternate means of storytelling; instead of the traditional beginning-middle-end, she’s considering “end-beginning-middle” or “middle-middle-middle.”
Gibson is as obsessed with language as her characters. She has created a polyphonic repartee that could be brilliant, if it weren’t so annoying and repetitive. And if the play, the people, the situation, even the dissertations ever went anywhere. But alas, these desperate, despondent, self-absorbed twirty-somethings are lost in the morass of navel-gazing and linguistic hyper-analysis. The men do nothing but wait around for their girlfriends to let them into their apartments (very imaginatively designed by Louisa Thompson); they are literally left out in the cold, shivering in stairwells. Do these slacker-guys do anything but mope and wait and avoid real connection?
Words are everything here– except a means of communication. Thoughts are started, semantics dissected, sentences left incomplete, in Gibson’s staccato, hiccuppy rhythm of Gen-X life. It’s intriguing –for awhile. But then, when these non-singers start to sing (again), and when all the hopeless, narcissistic, pointless points recur repeatedly, we grow weary. It’s a long 90 minutes; even if Gibson has a potent voice and an acute ear, she doesn’t make us care about her characters, and we come to resent having to spend an evening with them. Her earlier play, [sic], which premiered locally at Sledgehammer Theatre last year, focused on the same lost generation, but there was somewhat more there there. These pathetic souls, smart, spoiled and overeducated, use words for desultory self-stimulation, but there’s no fulfilling climax for them or for us. Every time any semblance of a real feeling or emotion surfaces, it’s squelched by a metalinguistic disquisition.
Daniel Aukin’s direction is crisp and precise, and his capable cast — Christina Kirk (veteran of the New York productions of [sic] and “Suitcase”), Colleen Werthmann, Thomas Jay Ryan and Jonathan Woodward — make the most of these word-obsessive whiners. The only moment with heart is when these two supposedly grown women live vicariously, voyeuristically, through the old tapes and family movies of strangers, little girls whom they perceive to be happier than they ever were or will be. It’s a bleak view of a hopeless generation that needs to get a life. Gibson, with her prodigious talent, needs to get a plot.
REST OF THE FEST
Last week, I caught one more night (Program #3) of the 14th annual Actors Alliance San Diego Festival … and I’d have to say, it wasn’t the most memorable of dramatic evenings, though there were moments. None of the offerings made it into the Best of the Fest that ended the spotty-but-sometimes-inspired, 2-week/7 program event.
Program 3 began and ended with “The ‘M’ Word,” which was a joint creation of a bevy of talented local writers: Todd Blakesley, Jim Caputo, Peggy Dougherty, Cuahtemoc Kish, Patricia Loughrey, Leslie Ridgeway, George Soete, Noelle Tarpey. This type of group effort doesn’t always cohere or succeed, though the episodic structure here lent itself to the use of snippets and insights from several sources. Multiple perspectives on gay marriage, from the minister to the grandma, and everyone in between. Nicely varied, flexible performances by Priscilla Allen, Tim Carr, Julie Clemmons, John Henry, Nick Mata and Noell Tarpey (especially good as the Granny). But no new ground broken, really.
Terry Glaser produced and directed “Botticelli,” a nasty little war play by Terrence McNally. Two American soldiers (Landon Vaughn and Jeff Wells) engage in a highly literate, quippy word-game at the same time as they smoke out (and snuff out) a lone Vietcong. Jerry Maxwell did a little drag turn in Terri Trainor’s “Firestorm,” a quirky monologue about the personal experience of a home-wrecking wildfire. Back on the alternate-family theme, Don Worley’s “Genealogy” concerned a lesbian couple who wants to have a baby by artificial insemination. To contribute some of her own DNA to the mix, Helen (no-nonsense Teri Lehner) decides to ask her cousin (credible Larry Parker) to donate the sperm for the turkey-baster — without telling his wife. Things go awry in this occasionally-amusing piece, but everything comes out neat and tidy in the end.
Next up on the you-never-know-what-you’ll-get play circuit is the Fritz Blitz (which is more tightly controlled, judged and refereed, methinks), opening this weekend, also at the Lyceum. Last year’s fare was very tasty. Time for you to dig in and sample this statewide smorgasbord.
The Fritz Blitz — if it’s anything like last year, it should provide four weekends of amusement, talent and entertainment. At the Lyceum Theatre, through August 29.
“Breaking Legs” — Do NOT fuggeddaboudit. This is the real linguine. Slight but very funny Italian/Noo Yawk comedy, delightfully acted, directed and designed. Through August 8.
“Twelfth Night” — Poor Players’ bare-bones production makes light of the highs and underscores the lows — while highlighting the language. at Adams Ave Studio through 8/22.
Yikes! August already! Make the most of it — at the theater.
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.