By Pat Launer
A week of laughter and love’s tempest-tossing
From “Much Ado’ to a Globe-al “Crossing.”
Then, spicing up the dramatic proceedings:
A series of powerful semi-staged Readings.
At the end, “Boy Gets Girl” (in a shocking way),
But “Beauty” transcends — in a real ‘passion play.’
Tina Landau’s “Beauty” goes straight to the heart, by way of the soul. It’s not just about female pulchritude. It’s about myth and faith and love. It’s about dreams and reality. It’s about being awake and being alive.
Riffing on the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty, Landau tells a time-hopping story of a medieval princess, asleep for 1000 years, and a modern young man on a quest for the woman who haunts his dreams. Metaphorically, the play takes off from the notion that Beauty is asleep in the world and goes on to confront the issue of being receptive to Love, ready to receive the awakening kiss, to take a leap into an exciting, terrifying unknown (an image which forms the unforgettable final moment of the play).
It’s a mystical, magical evening. We emerge from it as if from a dream. As writer and director, Landau’s brilliant creation is far more Joseph Campbell than Walt Disney. Her production is gorgeous to behold, simple, stylized, enigmatic, musical and irresistible. Our guide and narrator is Constance, the crone (a wonderfully engaging Lisa Harrow), a fairy who has guarded and protected the princess Rose, and who shepherds young James through all the briars and brambles he has to navigate to find that perfect flower, his One and Only. Along the way, we learn of Constance’s own rejection, her being ignored, becoming invisible, underscoring the modern-day plight of every older woman. Until recently, a crone was not a witch or hag; she was an elder, a wise woman, an experienced, often spiritual leader. The play awakens the prince or princess or crone in each of us… the seeker, the sought, the sage. Each of us has to be ready for the next step, willing to go through some sort of internal and external hell to find truth, beauty and love.
There is something primal here — in the story, the symbols and the images; if you’re willing to go with it, it will touch you. Deeply. In fact, my only (minor) complaint is that Landau seems to lose her nerve a bit at the end, becoming a little too direct and didactic, telling all the things that Beauty is or can be. Presumably, much of this came from her various workshops on the piece (including two years ago at UCSD, as a result of which, five of those original students are in this world premiere production). By then, we’ve all surely gotten the message, and are able to take the concept of Beauty as far as we can, drawing on our own personal experience and perception. The kiss, the glorious strains of Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise,” beautifully sung by James (Jason Daniely) and Rose (Kelli O’Hare), the ‘Moral’ told to us by the crone and the imminence of the Leap are enough. Landau has done her job exceedingly well; she can trust that we have received and processed and will continue to think about all that she has presented to us, all that we have felt and sensed, consciously or subliminally. This is, after all, the source of myth.
So, if you can float with this fantasy, if you can let yourself slip into it, you will come out a richer person. Landau has told us a great deal about love and war, perseverance and perspicacity, readiness and boldness, awareness, independence and individuality, flouting mores and expectations, pushing the limits to get what you want, what you think you deserve, being yourself, waking up. Whew! That’s a lot to convey in 90 minutes. Like any journey worth taking, you have to be open and willing. Happily, you’re carried along by a wonderful cast (the MFA-student ensemble is outstanding) and a glorious setting (suggestive natural and metal design by Riccardo Hernandez), strikingly, evocatively lit by Scott Zielinski. The costumes (Melina Root) are often magical, too… especially that white-winged Princess dress, which is extended for 20 feet outward, as widespread butterfly wings, and then wrapped around young Rose (Maypole? Cocoon? Straitjacket?); willfully, she uncoils herself, breaks free in order to dance in defiance and a celebration of life. Another luminous image in a dazzling production.
EVERY STEP YOU TAKE, EVERY MOVE YOU MAKE ….
If you like your drama intense (as I do), look no further than Stone Soup Theatre Company’s “Boy Gets Girl,” a perfect part of 6th @ Penn Theatre’s Year of the Woman. Rebecca Gilman’s play, which premiered at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, and went on to a critically acclaimed run in New York (Time Magazine called it the #1 theatrical event of 2000), is extremely provocative and unsettling.
It’s the story of Theresa Bedell, a New York magazine writer in her 30s who goes on an awkward blind date with Tony, a sort-of friend of a friend. She sees no reason to continue the relationship, but Tony thinks otherwise. At first, Theresa is annoyed yet flattered by the continuing attention, but her attitude soon changes to fury and then to fear, as Tony begins to threaten her and those around her. Things get creepier and creepier (for Theresa and for the audience; prepare to squirm). Here is a woman in full control of her life; she’s not a sex-kitten or a provocateur. She doesn’t in any way lead this man on. And yet, she is stalked.
In vividly delineating the kind of terror a powerful woman can feel when everything around her suddenly seems menacing, Gilman probes a very dark side of modern relationships with rich insight and compelling characterizations. On the back of the Stone Soup program, there are bone-chilling national statistics. Only about half of all stalking victims report the incidents to the police; about 25% of those obtain a restraining order; 80% of all restraining orders are violated by the assailant. It’s just not a safe world out there, especially for women. And not for besieged and beleaguered Theresa, magnificently brought to life by Nicole Hess (a founding member of Stone Soup, a graduate of SDSU who recently completed her MFA in acting in Florida). Hers is a rich, multi-layered portrait of an intelligent, independent woman worn down by circumstance. Adrian Alita, most of whose heinous acts occur offstage, seems like a genuine, likable-enough guy as the perp (and perv), Tony. Joe Thomas offers in amusing Larry Flynt-like performance as the X-rated movie mogul, Les Kennkat, and Spencer Moses, another SDSU alum, fresh from “Company” at Starlight, is solid as Theresa’s young but sympathetic co-worker. As her avuncular boss, Dale Morris plays delightfully against type (no more Mr. Not-Nice Guy!). Caprice Woosely, Stone Soup A.D./co-founder, has directed with a confident hand; the taut, stomach-churning suspense never lets up. If you can stand looking into the dark abyss of human behavior, you can’t do better than this. Excellent play, superb production.
THE GLOBE GOES ROUND… AND ROUND
It seems like there’s ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ on two stages at the Old Globe. The Shakespeare comedy is gracing the outdoor stage, in a funny-but-silly production. And in the Globe Theatre, there’s Tom Stoppard’s 1984 “Rough Crossing,” a singularly ridiculous show that, if I were he, with all the acclaim and accolades heaped on him in recent years for linguistic and dramatic brilliance, I’d withdraw from my canon (and make cannon-fodder). Let’s take ’em one at a time.
“Much Ado” has much to commend it, but two elements in particular remain ensconced in memory: Anna Louizos’ jaw-dropping Tuscan palace-set, sun-dappled by Peter Maradudin’s lovely lighting. And then there’s… Billy Campbell. He plays the linguistically agile Benedick in a rather literal reading of the offhanded epithet, the Prince’s jester. Campbell’s Benedick is a goofy guy who doesn’t seem as smart as he should… but with the actor’s winning ways and drool-inducing looks, he has the audience eating out of his hand (and, by the end, the reluctant and recalcitrant Beatrice as well). He has more comic business than a band of Marx Brothers, and he plays it to the hilt, but he’s riveting every moment he’s on the stage. As his equally-clever match, the decidedly single and independent Beatrice, Dana Delany is less strong — of voice and character. She’s whiney and nasty, in a very 21st century, TV way.
The production, set for unknown and never-quite-clarified reasons, just after World War I, is rife with anachronisms of speech, acting style and action (e.g., I doubt that the ‘gag-me’ gesture was popular in Italy in the ’20s; and what Italian genre spawned TJ Johnson’s blues-jazz song?). Ryan Michelle Bathé does a nice turn with the maid Margaret, who is complicit when Borachio (a convincing Andrew McGinn) dupes the young lovers Hero and Claudio and helps to destroy their impending marriage. The original music and sound design of Lindsay Jones is all over the map. The saving grace of the time-setting is the clever use of a small-sized, high-flying biplane, which gives Campbell the opportunity to make his entrance and exit à la Charles Lindbergh). Tommy Gomez is an aptly bumbling constable Dogberry, but his henchmen are a trio of dolts who have little to do but stand around like mute statues. Director Brendon Fox may over-extend the comic antics, but he makes excellent use of the splendid set, with its statuary and stairways, working fountains and trellised, wisteria-draped balconies. In sum, the production is lightweight but lovely.
Same can be said of “Rough Crossing,” only more so. It’s not quite clear why the Globe has seen fit, at this rather serious juncture in our history, to run three comedies at once (“Blue/Orange,” billed at least as a ‘black comedy,” opens this week). How about a little heft? Something to sink our teeth into? Something to actually think about? But no. Instead we have early Stoppard, in a cover of Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar, whose 1927 romantic comedy, “Play at the Castle,” also inspired P.G. Wodehouse’s 1928 classic, “The Play’s the Thing.” Stoppard tricks up the plot even more than his comic predecessors, and resets the shenanigans at sea, which provides the opportunity for interminable nautical humor. “Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern,” “Arcadia” and “Shakespeare in Love” are Stoppard at his witty, intellectual best. Here, we get nothing more than mindless one-liners, one after another, after another. We follow the sometimes musical (thanks to generally forgettable melodies by Andre Previn) misadventures of a flamboyant playwriting duo on a deadline, attempting to finish their next Broadway blockbuster before they get from Southampton to New York. Also on board are a temperamental leading lady; a fading but still-lecherous matinee idol; a composer with a bizarre speech defect; and a steward on his maiden voyage who serves as the glue that holds the entire plot together (both in the play and the play-within-the-play).
Despite the play’s massive weaknesses (a convolution of “tongue trippery and tripped uppery”) the production is quite appealing. The set (John Coyne), a rotating, inside/outside high-end cruise ship, is very attractive, as are the costumes (Katherine Roth) and indoor/outdoor lighting (David F. Segal). The musical staging (Bonnie Johnston) is suitably droll. The performances are appealing, with Marc Vietor a kind of David Niven look/sound-alike, and his ever-eating partner, Christian Clemson, speaking in some unidentifiable dialect. Jennifer Roszell nails her accent as the diva Natasha, as does the hilarious Mark Nelson as the bumbling steward Dvornichek, the funniest part of the evening (though those relentlessly recurring bits about his sealegs and serving/drinking the cognac do go on). As the speech-blocked Adam, Adam Greer is dressed like a French mime (oddly enough), and Alan Coates rounds out the cast as an overblown blowhard of an actor. Everyone does everything to excess, which is part of the point, but it grows excessively tiresome. Director Stan Wojewodski works wonders keeping the proceedings frenetic, even if the plot-twists are not always comprehensible. A very good time was had by the opening-night audience. I was mildly amused, but I’d much rather be intellectually stimulated at the same time. No chance for that here (except for those few, titillating, arcane references that Stoppard slyly sneaks in; alas, they’re often washed away at sea).
EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT!!
Readings, Readings everywhere. Mondays and Sundays and Saturdays. It’s a veritable Read-Fest on local stages. “Vox Hellenic,” the Sledgehammer-GrassRoots Greeks collaboration, continued this Saturday with two works by Marianne McDonald — a translation and an adaptation of Euripides’ “Alcestis.” It’s an ideal work for a week of wonder-women (see below, “Beauty” and “Boy Gets Girl”). Here we have a Greek heroine who’s a lot more heroic than the men around her. Alcestis, wife to Admetus, agrees to die instead of her doomed husband, but is saved by a boorish, humorous Heracles (aka Hercules). Believe it or not, this is a tragedy with a happy ending. The straight-ahead translation has a bit of comic relief (macho, humorous Dan Gibbs as a crude, uncouth, womanizing Arrrrnold-like Heracles). The reading was very well executed, with the added poignancy of real-life husband and wife KB Mercer and Doren Elias playing the ill-fated couple. In a tiny role, young Kevin Koppman-Gue was heart-wrenching as the grieving son. McDonald’s fresh adaptation, “Ally’s Way,” was written for a black cast, first shown in New York in 2002, where it was directed by Seret Scott. It has plenty of recent and modern misogyny (hilarious quotes from Phyllis Schlafly and a handbook on how to be a perfect, servile wife). Set in Washington, D.C., the play centers on Adrian, a philandering Secretary of State (Don Worley) who’s become disillusioned with his job. His stalwart wife, Alysin (resolute Sandra Eagye), takes a bullet aimed at him by an anti-liberal assassin (a menacing Anthony Gordon Hamm). Rhona Gold was potent as Thelma (a commenting ‘chorus’ of sorts) and Sara Plaisted was amusing as the household’s resident (requisite?) oversexed intern, Monique. In this version, the leading lady is revived by a visiting (arrogant) neurosurgeon from South Africa (Terence Burke). At the end, like his Greek prototype Admetus, Adrian learns his lesson — and learns to appreciate his wife. The reading was well directed by Ruff Yeager, whose work around town is getting more muscular all the time.
I only caught the first segment (Acts 1 and 2) of the Actors Alliance benefit reading of George Bernard Shaw’s “Man and Superman” — had to run off to the La Jolla Playhouse opening of “Beauty.” But what I saw was outstanding. Admirably adapted and directed by Barbara Elliott, the cast was consistently first-rate, including Jonathan Dunn-Rankin as the patriarchal Roebuck Ransden; Jason Connors as the lovesick poet-naïf, Octavius Rabinson; Eric George delightful as the cockney wise-fool, Henry Straker; Cris O’Bryon amusing as the self-important American, Hector Malone; and Jennifer Austin a terrific tease as Ann Whitefield, the object of everyone’s desire. The biggest and most delightful surprise was the Old Globe’s associate director, Brendon Fox as Tanner, an aptly Shavian supercilious know-it-all. Sorry that I didn’t get to see “Don Juan in Hell” — or George Flint and Marcus Overton, who made their entrances later in the three-act evening. From all reports, the rest was as excellent and entertaining as the outset.
Monday night brought the Carlsbad Playreaders’ presentation of Athol Fugard’s “Sorrows and Rejoicings.” Fugard wasn’t on hand (though he was at McDonald’s readings), but I think he might’ve approved of Robert Dahey’s direction and cast. They did a splendid job on this hauntingly beautiful, poetic love letter to a country, and a hope for its healing. Susan Denaker and Varalyn Jones were powerful as two South African women, one white, one black, mourning the same man, a poet in exile from his beloved Karoo. It is a play about the past and the future, a requiem for the destruction and bitter aftermath of apartheid, and a celebration of life and the potential for rejuvenation. Monique Gaffney played the mixed-race daughter of the writer as a troubled, angry and beautiful young woman. Marc Overton, a formidable and compelling actor, did a wonderful job with Dawid, the poet, but I found it unnerving that he was the only one without a South African accent (though he seemed to handle the many Afrikaans words with aplomb). This struck me as a cognitive dissonance, because this man’s love of the land was so palpable that he above all had to sound as much a part of it as the glorious words he was speaking. The play, which has marvelous interactions but not many actions, worked extremely well as a reading; all the focus was where it belongs, on the magnificent language. I think it’d be a difficult play to stage, but it would be a profound experience for more people to hear this lush language so effectively expressed.
And now, for THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“An Evenin’ with Billie” — late-night reprise of downtown’s fantastic performance by Anasa Johnson, singing the glorious songs of Billie Holiday; at 6th @ Penn; MUST CLOSE THIS WEEKEND — But you HAVE TO SEE THIS SHOW!!!
“Beauty” — gorgeous world premiere, beautifully written and wonderfully directed by Tina Landau; mystical, magical… See it! At La Jolla Playhouse; through October 19
“Boy Gets Girl” — dark and intense, suspenseful and disturbing — and, if you can take it, definitely worth seeing; at 6th@ Penn — only through October 4
“Love! Valour! Compassion!” — the boys are back in town! And what fabulous company they are. Just EXTENDED TO OCTOBER 18!!
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” — Jeremiah Lorenz is fabulous, and the band, though ultra-loud, is killer. The Cygnet is hatched, and it soars; JUST EXTENDED to November 2!!
Fall in! … and put a little drama in your life!
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.