By Pat Launer
It was a weekend of dramatic late-nighters…
From BRAVO to Orphans to Plays by Young Writers
But running around is never a trauma
When there’s glitter and glitz and true high drama.
As the largest event of its kind in the state, possibly in the nation, Bravo celebrated its 5th year of meshing the arts and business communities — in great style. The Saturday night gala was sponsored by the San Diego Performing Arts League, whose beneficiaries were their wonderful cross-pollinating programs: Business Volunteers for the Arts, Lawyers for the Arts, Technology for the Arts and OnBoard training for non-profit organizations’ board members. The event featured 1000 performers and 1000 guests, ranging from the Mayor to Joan and Irwin Jacobs, from Father Joe to Audrey Geisel, 75 performing arts groups from around the county, and everyone who’s involved in and loves the arts (and who could afford the tix).
The festivities and energy were high (even if the temperature wasn’t; I pitied those poor ladies in halter tops and strapless numbers. Yikes! It was nippy — and so were they!) There were some cool new additions to the event this year, especially the Red Carpet (with bulb-popping paparazzi, courtesy of CYT) and the Stars of the Future room, which featured talented up-and-comers like the poised and confident, mind-blowing 9 year-old piano prodigy, Rosina Grieco. All the dance, music, theater, drink and food you could want under one roof at the posh downtown Westgate Hotel. Lotsa schmoozing, of course, and grazing, and drinking, and drinking and drinking. Not me… I was working… doing a documentary of the event for City TV … so I was grabbing interviews and hopping around with 3 cameramen to try and capture the essence of the evening. Not easy, since it’s so huge and expansive, on multiple floors, in multiple rooms. Whew! Mind-boggling! The fireworks at the end were a bit of a dud, until they really revved up (after a verrry slow-fizz start) but the laughter about that kept us warm on the rooftop. Sam Woodhouse was the Celebrity MC, and he got a caricature marionette as a thank-you. I’m still relishing those Four Seasons-Aviara veal-cheeks (a helluva lot tastier than they sound!). But it sure was hard to find a seat, or a bottle of water! It seemed that only the Angel Salon, the exclusive enclave for high-end ticket-holders, got the high-end dessert options.
The dancing, from 11-midnight, was great fun, and kept everyone warm (no one was feeling any pain by that time — except maybe in their feet). Time to start saving up for next year; this is the place to be, come November.
SWEET WORD OF YOUTH…
The 19th annual Plays by Young Writers 2003 is, in some ways, leaner and meaner than in the past. Due to budgetary constraints, only two plays were fully produced, of the 282 submitted. And, from the REALLY young set, there are four readings (all directed by Robert Dahey) by writers age 10-13. Very impressive all around.
On opening night, it was a full house in the lovely theater at the Bishop’s School in La Jolla. Excitement was high, since one of the playwrights (Brandon Alter) is the grandson of arts patron/collector and SD Opera Board Chair Iris Strauss. Her guests included Irwin Jacobs and others. Alter’s piece was last, and because of its theme and intensity (and his writing acumen) it overshadowed the other two plays. But they were also wonderful, serious (and sometimes comic) theatrical endeavors.
The reading came first (there’s one per performance). That night, it was “Madeline Learns to Fly,” by 10 year-old Taylor Renteria. A delightful fable about leaving the nest and learning to fly (literally as well as figuratively), the title character is a fledgling robin, adorably and engagingly played by Julia Kelleher. The play shows how sometimes necessity is as good as formal education for growing up fast and acquiring new skills. The play is short, sweet — and remarkable to have come from the pen of one so young.
“How They See It,” written by 16 year-old Tyler Moselle, concerns three kids’ reactions to their classmate’s kidnapping disappearance. Supposedly second or third graders, these children are getting little information and guidance from their (silhouetted, barely present) parents, and they try to figure out and come to grips with the crisis on their own. It’s a wonderful idea that still needs some fleshing out; there isn’t really an arc to the story, and it trails off at the end. But it’s a valiant and courageous effort, by a young writer with real promise. The direction, by Linda Libby, gives a lot of stage business to the three schoolkids (obviously much older than the characters they play) and all the wriggling movement proves to be a distraction. But there were moments of magic when it all clicked.
That was true of just about every moment in Brandon Alter’s “Forty Miles from Tel Aviv.” The play is amazing. Here’s an 18 year-old Jewish San Diegan trying to get into the head of a Palestinian suicide bomber, to find out what makes him tick — and so ticked off. A great deal of research went into the fictional concoction; I spoke to one of the Palestinian consultants at the reception, and he thought the result really rang true. I thought it was astonishing that such a young person would have so much insight into love, marriage, anguish, hopelessness and the workings of the human heart.
Malik is a student of law in the West Bank who’s run out of time, money and hope. His wife, Salah, watches over the household, the children, the dwindling budget and larder, and manages to find the joy to go on, and even to dance. When the play opens, she’s so happy her husband has the day off, the children are at school, and they have a large chunk of time alone together. A whole day. And then, a phone call comes, and everything begins to unravel.
Maybe we never know our mates; we barely even know ourselves. And what is the price of self-respect? How much is one willing to give up? To pay? These are heady questions, poetically posed, wrapped up in a loving, sensual relationship. Delicia Turner Sonnenberg has more choreographed than directed; every move is evocative of the Middle East’s push-pull of faith and despair. Anahid Shahrik is incandescent as the adoring wife who will do just about anything for her handsome husband. Just about. And Diep Huynh does his very best work in this multi-faceted character — tender, doting husband/father; desperate, doomed warrior. Needs clash with desires. Family love is pitted against cultural conflict. The language is beautiful, the production stunning, with a magnificent earth-toned, sun-bleached set, suggestive sand-blocks and pillars, all redolent of better, brighter times.
There are no heroes and villains here. There is no condemnation or exoneration. Alter is more interested in exploring the questions than providing answers. But by putting a human face on the ‘monstrous enemy,’ he allows us all to experience empathy. And maybe that is the first baby step toward peace.
I think this play should be toured to all the Jewish Centers and temples in San Diego (and beyond). I think it should have wide exposure, to young people and old, those set in their ways and those open to new ideas. Contemplating the skill that went into it, and the story it tells, will almost certainly make you weep. It did me.
HE WAYYY HEAVY; HE’S MY BROTHER
Everybody needs a little ‘encouragement,’ an arm around the shoulder, a pat on the back, a push in the right direction. Presumably, motherless/fatherless children get less than the rest of us, and need it more. That’s the premise of Lyle Kessler’s 1985 “Orphans,” currently receiving an outstanding production at New Village Arts. It’s just the kind of edgy, edge-of-your-seat drama the young company loves. And Treat, the older of two orphaned brothers, is just the sort of angry, jumpy, volatile character artistic director Francis Gercke adores.
After their parents died/disappeared, Treat kept the social worker at bay by biting her at the door. Ever since, he’s been supporting and protecting his younger sib, Phillip, so much so that the dim-witted brother has become a shut-in, fearful of everything and knowing nothing. Living in the seamy side of Philadelphia (city of brotherly love), Treat supports the ‘family’ by petty thievery. Then, one night, he staggers home with a well-heeled drunk to fleece, and their lives are never the same. Also an orphan, Harold becomes the father the boys never had. Phillip takes to the ‘encouragement’; Treat resents and rejects it. In a series of sizzling scenes, emotions are stretched to the limit — ours as well as those onstage. It’s a thrilling, nerve-shattering ride.
In the plush vintage seats recently installed by New Village Arts sometime-space in the Carlsbad Jazzercize, the thrust stage draws the audience into the claustrophobic, cat-and-mouse action. The piece gets off to a rocky start, with hyperactive movement from both brothers, ultimately expertly played by Gercke and Joshua Everett Johnson, who bear an uncanny resemblance. They bounce up, down and around the stage like jumping beans until the communication kicks in and the interactions intensify. Then director Kristianne Kurner (NVA managing director) allows the play to take over, grab us by the neck and not let go. Her cast is electrifying, savagely funny at times. Gercke does well what he does so well — a hot-blooded, explosive ogre with a fragile ego and a deeply-hidden soft heart. Johnson’s Phillip is slow of speech, with extended vowels and a wide-eyed innocence; but he has his secrets. And unlike his big brother, he’s still hopeful, open to change. He takes the biggest journey in the play, but where/how he’ll wind up is anybody’s guess.
The most enigmatic character is Harold. This is the best work Jim Chovick has done in some time. His Harold seems kind, fatherly, nurturing. Maybe he could show us a tad more of the darkness underneath. But maybe that would be tipping his hand. Clearly, Harold is no angel; and like the boys, he’s needy. He makes sure that everyone’s desires are fulfilled. Sort of. For a time. Then, inevitably, disaster strikes. [On the subject of Jim Chovick, he just scored big — he’s stepping into the shoes (paws?) of Old Max in the Globe’s “Grinch,” beginning Dec. 9. Whatta coup!]
About to enter its third season, New Village Arts has been a marvelous addition to the San Diego theater scene, and a particularly potent enhancement of North County culture. They’re dedicated to taut productions of lesser-known (or rarely done) dramas, and they do them extremely well. Next, they need to up the production values, and develop tech work that matches their acting expertise. The set, sound and lighting are serviceable but not stellar. It’s far better to put the energy and currency into the acting (some theaters, which shall remain nameless, tend to do just the opposite) but it may be time for NVA to take the next step up. Their quality merits and deserves it, and so do their loyal audiences.
THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“A View from the Bridge” –spectacular ensemble work from Renaissance Theatre, in a play that never goes out of style; at Cygnet Theatre (near SDSU) through December 14
“Orphans” — taut, intense and dramatic; Pinter’s “Caretaker” taken to violent extremes. Wonderfully acted; extended through December 23 at Jazzercise in Carlsbad.
“Plays by Young Writers 2003” — extraordinary work by writers age 10-18. You absolutely MUST see Brandon Alter’s “Forty Miles from Tel Aviv.” Brilliant. Dec 2-6 at the Lyceum Theatre.
“Beehive” — one of San Diego’s longest-running musical hits, is closing soon; all those great girl-group songs; irresistible! At the Theatre in Old Town, through January 4 only.
Don’t be a Turkey … see some theater this weekend! And I’ll seeya there….
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.