By Pat Launer
You know what they always say:
Life is just a cabaret
But that thought warrants another look
When you’re a boy who’s fallen into a book.
And I, ‘mid all the rigmarole,
Just put myself in Cruz control
To greet a passionate ‘Two Sisters’
And a confluence of Shakespearean misters
Who, oddly, gave the week some starch
When ‘Lear’ died on the Ides of March.
Playwright Nilo Cruz really believes in the power of art — to enlighten, distract, amaze, amuse, incite and inflame. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Anna in the Tropics,” a lector reads to factory workers and havoc ensues — love, lust, sex and death. In an earlier play (1999), passionate, confiscated letters from a man to his wife are read by another man, and they ignite an equally fiery (if second-hand) ardor.
“Two Sisters and a Piano” is similar in many ways to the later, prize-winning play. But it’s less complex in terms of characters and interactions, though it still boasts political adversaries, and an enticing juxtaposition of subjugation and sensuality.
Set in his native Cuba, in 1991, the play examines the relationship of sisters Sofia , a pianist, and Maria Celia, a writer, both living under house arrest after serving two years in prison for Maria Celia’s politically incendiary writings. Their confinement is made bearable by the music that pours from Sofia’s beloved piano and by the fantastical stream of letters that Maria Celia writes to her husband who’s trying to secure asylum for her. The story is loosely based on the life of Mara Elena Cruz Varela, a Cuban poet who was imprisoned for two years after making anti-Castro comments.
But Cruz gives us the intriguing character of Lt. Portuondo, an officious official charged with “inventorying” the women’s home. It doesn’t take long for us to see that he’s a bit off-guard, off-balance because of his infatuation with Maria Celia, whose books he’s read and secretly admired. When he gets to know her heart and soul (through the eroticism of the letters and her provocative independence of spirit) he’s even more enamored. The letters excite her, too, and for a moment, we actually believe that this relationship might actually make some changes in the sisters’ situation.
We share a little voyeuristic thrill with the Lieutenant as he reads the impounded and censored letters. But we also have a dark, disturbing awareness that this is literary blackmail (he only reads a letter if she gives him another installment of one of her dreamy, romantic stories) and that he is aroused not only by her mind, body and imagination, but also by his power and control over her.
Meanwhile, out on the streets pandemonium reigns, in response to the Pan American games in Havana and a Kremlin coup that signals the imminent dissolution of the Castro-supporting Soviet Union. Inside, there’s danger and chaos, too. Contrapuntal emotions and motivations underlie the erotic, language-drunk dance of these two ardent adversaries.
The intimacy of the Cassius Carter Centre Stage helps foster the claustrophobic feel Cruz’s plays demand. But the set (Kris Stone) gives little intimation of a once-opulent colonial home. It’s spartan and unadorned, and while the window embedded in the floor serves several (sometimes contradictory) functions, the door in the floor seems to serve no purpose at all. It seemed that I saw more backs than faces, and every other person I spoke to, no matter where they’d sat, felt the same. This is a problem of direction (Karen Carpenter) and appropriate use of an arena space. But the sound design hits all the right notes; Paul Peterson underscores the action with an aching piano soundscape (performed by Karl Mansfield).
The cast is skillful, the performances vigorous and convincing: Gloria Garayua is childlike in her adolescent lust and wild imaginings, but forceful and steadfast at critical moments. Jesse Ontiveros seems ingenuous, fearful, even amusing as the piano tuner — or is he a government spy? Or was his disappearance part of the lieutenant’s power-trip?
Philip Hernandez is brawny and sad-eyed as the lieutenant whose motives are enigmatic and whose anger is quick to flare. And as Maria Celia, Socorro Santiago manages to be both controlled and explosive, heated and sizzling.
The language of the play is lush and lyrical. There may be some implausible elements, but the emotions are highly charged and the sensuality is palpable. “Two Sisters” isn’t as much about Cuba as about the power of art, and staying committed to your values and beliefs, even in the face of sexual promise, personal subjugation or political domination.
BOOK ‘IM, DANNO
The Lambs have always been kind to kids — training them, going into schools with outreach programs, casting young ones (such as Bix Bettwy and Sarah Zimmerman) and nurturing them into accomplished pros. Now, they’ve begun a children’s theater series, where adults perform child-friendly plays. Dedicated to eschewing realism in order to stimulate the imagination, the series, aptly called The Play House, just kicked off with the U.S. premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1998 literary adventure, “The Boy Who Fell into a Book.” Better known for his rather acerbic puzzler-plays for adults, Ayckbourn has written nearly a dozen works for kids (including “Mr. A’s Amazing Maze Plays,” which was produced at the Globe exactly ten years ago).
In this piece, “The Boy” in question is Kevin, who falls asleep happily immersed in his favorite page-turner. He wakes to find himself in the thick of the action, alongside his hero, the somewhat goofy, streetwise detective, Rockfist Slim, protagonist of the Green Shark mystery series. Together, they have to escape the Green Shark and avoid the monstrous Monique. But in order to find their way home (well, Kevin’s home, that is), they must travel through all the books on Kevin’s shelf. So, they make a headlong dash through ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” Kidnapped,’ a collection of Ghost Stories and even ‘Chess for Beginners.’
The play is intended for audiences age 10-12 and up, but it was certainly being enjoyed by kids a lot younger, and many of the adults as well. Director James Saba brought his sly sense of humor to the piece, and there are many amusing moments. He raises the bar for making use of an arena space (from the catwalk to the traps; front, back and center). His cast is comical and malleable; four of them (Karen Ann Daniels, Chris Bresky, Kelli Sides, Michael Lamendola) play 16 roles, in the fabulous, fantastical costumes of Jeanne Reith and Aina S. O’Kane.
When the story moves into a book left by Kevin’s 4 year-old sister, about the Wooblies (sort of a cross between the Teletubbies and the TV personification of Jack in the Box), things get a bit… well, Woobly. But nothing is taken too seriously, and we just roll with the puerile Punch-and Judy comedy (and the more adult wink-nods to the grown-ups).
This is a great way to introduce kids to theater, to make them feel like part of the action, to watch them get wide-eyed and frightened, to hoot at the silliness, jeer the villain and applaud the hero (which Ian Gilligan, as Kevin, surely is — totally natural and credible). For an English play with many Britishisms, it’s kinda funny to see Paul Maley play Slim like a Jersey Mafioso, but it brings in the laughs, and he’s thoroughly engaging. Instead of falling into the tube this weekend, encourage a child to fall into a book. At Lamb’s original National City space, the Playhouse on Plaza, through March 21.
LIFE IS A CABARET
Cabaret has come to San Diego. It’s been tried before, but I think Sher Krieger is really gonna make it work and make it stay. She was a long-time employee of Mystery Café and one of the original (albeit small, she says) investors in Old Town’s “Forever Plaid.” She’s been doing her “Nite Out” series at the Hilton Del Mar, and she’s continuing with that venue, as well as establishing one in the Gaslamp district. As SMGO Productions, she’s also offering corporate team-building events, ‘limo hunts’ and custom mysteries. I thought I’d better check out the DM site, since it’s right in my neighborhood. I also thought I’d get to see Bettina Warren perform (she’s been the staple of the series) but she was off that night, it being a CD release party for Scott Dreier. The surprise guest of the evening was Leigh Scarritt, who did a searing rendition of “Suddenly Seymour” (from “Little Shop”) with Scott. What a treat! Leigh will be doing her one-woman cabaret show for Nite Out on April 24. Watch for details and the Gaslamp location (TBD). Also coming up at the new venue: Sandy Campbell, Phil Johnson and other local (and national) favorites.
Last Friday night, his fellow actors in the Welk’s “Dolly!” were there to cheer Scott on, as was his Carlsbad High School drama teacher. He’s a very engaging performer, a veteran of “Forever Plaid” with a smooth, agile voice. He could use a little more variety in his program; lots of earnest slow songs or sentimental ballads that start to sound similar in tone and pace after awhile. He’s adorable in the comic numbers (“Parsley on Your Plate,” “The Babysitter Song”). A more varied repertoire and arrangements would be great; his pianist, Brett Simmons from Orange County, was excellent. Scott interacts wonderfully with an audience and though these were mostly friends and fans, everyone was charmed by his self-effacing sweetness and supple vocal skill.
Sometimes, staged readings are a tragedy; sometimes a travesty. The Actors Alliance “On Book On Stage” production of “King Lear” (at the Lyceum, Monday 3/15) was both. A tragedy because that’s how Shakespeare wrote it — though director Todd Salovey mined all the comic moments, which made the play that much more rich and delicious. And a travesty to have such a terrific production confined to only one performance.
There were so many great things about it, it’s hard to know where to begin. The cast list read like Who’s Who in San Diego theater, and everyone lived up to expectations. At the center was Sam Woodhouse, heartbreaking as the misguided, self-destructive King. This was by far the best work of his career; he put all his guts into it, without becoming antic or maudlin, just totally believable as an obstinate, arrogant man who grossly misjudges his offspring and as a result, loses his daughter, his mind and his soul.
Ron Choularton was wonderful as Kent (in both his incarnations); Mark Christopher Lawrence brought nicely balanced humor and wisdom (and a bit of gospel singing!) to the Fool; Jonathan McMurtry was outstanding as Gloucester, the other gullible father deceived by his good and evil children (Edgar and Edmund). At the outset, McMurtry teasingly highlighted the saucy banter about his youthful sexual exploits. As staged, his blinding was a shocking moment; his post-traumatic state was pitiful and moving.
Brennan Taylor was delightful as Edgar (and his alter-ego Tom o’ Bedlam); as his malevolent half-brother, Francis Gerke was evil incarnate but he mugged too much, went too far with his conspiratorial winks and grimaces to the audience. His dastardly, villainous moments were more credible than his last-minute recanting.
As Lear’s daughters, Linda Libby made an excellent demon (Goneril) and as Regan, Jennifer Austin was not far behind. Julie Jacobs avoided a syrupy portrayal and was instead solid and stalwart as the devoted Cordelia; a lovely, understated performance. Jennifer Kraus bears mention as the ever-earnest Oswald, Goneril’s nasty servant.
Whoever conceived of this project merits applause. Hooray to Salovey for his casting and direction. The whole effort unequivocally deserves a reprise. Think about it, Sam and Todd…
In case you missed my documentary when it aired last week on KPBS-TV, “Trial by Fire: The Making of a Theater Professional” will be shown on City-TV (cable channel 24 on Cox and Time-Warner) next week.
Or — extra bonus! — you can watch it streaming live on the internet (sandiego.gov/citytv).
The documentary focuses on the SDSU Design/Performance Jury, which is coming up next week, March 26, 9-2:30, in the Experimental Theatre on the campus. You really shouldn’t miss it; it’s entertaining and informative. This year’s jury will include Marion Ross, Rosina Reynolds and others. The play will be Edward Albee’s “Finding the Sun” and this year, since the Theater Dept. has merged with telecommunications and film, the third group will make its presentation on film rather than as live theater. Cool! Watch the doc and then attend the 21st annual Jury. Such a deal!
CITY TV (CABLE 24, Cox & Time-Warner) and will also STREAM LIVE (sandiego.gov/citytv)
Sat. 3/20 at 6 AM, Noon & 8 PM
Sun. 3/21 at 6 AM, Noon & 6 PM
Monday 3/22 at 6 PM
Wed. 3/24 at 6 PM and 7 PM
Thu. 3/25 at 6 PM
Last week, I wrote about the untimely death of Spalding Gray, but I neglected to mention another loss to the theatrical community (thanks to Walter Murray for pointing it out): Paul Winfield Same age, too (62).
Winfield, who succumbed to a heart attack in the wake of a lifetime of obesity and diabetes, was an Academy Award-nominated actor known for his versatility in stage, film and TV roles, including a highly praised, Emmy-nominated 1978 depiction of Martin Luther King in a TV miniseries. In 1968, he played the boyfriend of Diahann Carroll in her sitcom, “Julia,” a role that many say helped open television to other black performers. Four years later, his portrayal of the loving sharecropper father in “Sounder” earned him an Oscar nom for best performance (the award went to Marlon for “The Godfather”). Winfield and Ms. Carroll reunited for “Love Letters” in the 1990s. In 1995, he won an Emmy for his role as a federal judge on “Picket Fences.” In 1998, he began narrating the A&E crime documentary series, “City Confidential.”
In his early years, gifted in both violin and cello and winner of the Best Actor nod two years in a row (Southern California Speech and Drama Teachers Association), he earned a scholarship to Yale, but attended several West coast colleges instead. He left UCLA six credits short of a degree, when he was cast in a professional production of “The Dutchman and the Toilet,” by LeRoi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka). Two years later, Columbia put him under contract. In 1978, People magazine described Winfield as “the most ubiquitous black TV/movie actor of the decade.” Onstage, he’d played in works by Shakespeare, Ibsen and Chekhov and starred opposite Denzel Washington in Ron Milner’s play, “Checkmates,” in LA and then on Broadway (1988).
In addition to his acting career, he bred and showed black pug dogs. Though he’d had relationships with Cicely Tyson and others, he never married, and lived alone in the Hollywood Hills — with seven pugs, each named for a Shakespearean character.
And now, for THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“Two Sisters and a Piano” — passion and politics from Pulitzer Prize-winner Nilo Cruz; steamy story, provocative performances; on the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through April 11
“Ashes to Ashes” and “The Lover” — dark, cynical, enigmatic, delicious; wonderful performances by Ron Choularton and Cristina Soria, directed by Robert May… At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through April 4.
“Macbeth” — just as dark, spooky, intense and supernatural as you’d expect from Sledgehammer; it doesn’t disappoint. At St. Cecilia’s EXTENDED through April 3
Happy St. Pat’s …and Spring!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.