By Pat Launer
‘Vincent’s in Brixton,’ opening new portals;
‘Metamorphoses’ spotlights gods and mortals.
While Rossetti , in his Circle, artistic flag unfurled,
Spies a ‘Woman from the Other Side of the World.’
Starry, starry night. Not in Paris or Arles . But Brixton, a seedy, sooty suburb of London . 1873. Vincent van Gogh enters the boarding house of Mrs. Ursula Loyer , looking for lodging. Thus far in his 20 years of life, he’s been considered a failure, the black sheep of his family; now he’s an international art dealer (actually “a junior sales assistant”), and none too successful at that, either. He’s been sent to England , but hopes for a transfer to Paris . Plus or minus a few other factoids, that’s about all we know. The rest is delightful, dramatic speculation, in Nicholas Wright’s Olivier Award-winning “Vincent in Brixton.” According to letters to his younger brother, Theo, the ‘plain, outspoken Dutchman’ found first love in England and suffered ever after, drifting in and out of mental hospitals. He was a virgin when he arrived and a tormented wildman when he left. The love interest, in Wright’s imagination, instead of being the 19 year-old daughter of the landlady, is the landlady herself, a widow for 15 years who’s still in mourning. “You are the mirror of my despair,” Wright has Vincent tell her. And she says, “I’ve never seen anyone so raw and suffering – and ruthless. I couldn’t resist it.” They’re soulmates of the dark side. “I love your unhappiness,” he says. And over and over, he tells her, “No woman is old so long as she loves and is loved.”
It’s a lovely conjecture. Two tortured souls. The older woman providing the budding genius with his sexual and artistic awakening. In lesser hands, the play could feel contrived. But Globe director Richard Seer has brought a subtle beauty to the piece and has assembled a magnificent cast. Graham Hamilton is wonderfully charismatic as Vincent; he’s got the energy and impetuosity, the rash exuberance and lurking depression, the ardor and artistic temperament. He knows how to make a woman feel lovely and loved. Starkly set against this ebullient performance is the perfect stillness of Robin Pearson Rose. She is always solid and credible (unforgettable in the Globe productions of “Dancing at Lughnasa ,” “Wonderful Tennessee,” “All My Sons” and “ Da ”). She brings such an aching, luminous sadness to this repressed and depressive woman, an ordinary woman who yearns to be a catalyst for greatness. Juxtaposed with Vincent’s reluctant art is the brash and confident draughtsman, Sam Plowman, another boarder at Mrs. Loyer’s . Ross Hellwig , with his irresistible smile and sexuality, is delightful, a portrait of mediocrity in the face of brilliance; he sees it long before Vincent does (if the poor, agonized soul ever did). Hellwig was also adorably compelling last year in Seer’s USD production of “Sir Patient Fancy,” and Hamilton turned heads as one of last summer’s “Two Noble Kinsmen” at the Globe). Kate Steele plays the pretty, no-nonsense daughter of Mrs. Loyer , and Caitlin Muelder is excellent as Vincent’s stern, judgmental and fastidious sister, Anna. For some reason, these sibs seem to come from different families; their accents, while convincing, bear no resemblance to each other. We miss the two main characters whenever they’re not onstage; their chemistry, and their halting love scene, are magnificent. Their interactions smolder with passion, as the young man melts the icy detachment of a woman twice his age. The expository scenes, and the other relationships, are less thrilling. But Seer handles the text with sublime subtlety and nuance. He’s expert with these small, character-driven plays (like his magnificent 2000 production of “Old Wicked Songs” at the Globe). With “Vincent in Brixton,” he’s struck gold once again.
The design work is splendid; Alan Muraoka’s set is a rugged, wood Victorian kitchen, with raw wood beams above and steam rising from the working stove. Chris Rhynne’s painterly lighting frames Rose’s face like a loving portrait and suggestively spotlights some of the great paintings to come: the boots, the chair, the poppies. Paul Peterson obviously had fun with the sound design; that baby’s cries come right from the swaddling clothes!
So what if it’s all speculation and supposition? Wright has imagined the impetus for artistic zeal and creativity. And Seer’s confident, detailed brushwork completes the vibrant picture.
On the Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through May 8.
With “Metamorphoses,” director Mary Zimmerman lived up to her “genius award” (she won the McArthur Award in 1998, the same year the show premiered). She took 11 of the 250 myths from Ovid’s Latin poems, written in 8 A.D., and spun them into theater gold, creating an astonishing, wildly imaginative play about transformation, the permutations of love and the depth of the human soul. Her design concept was sheer genius, the entire 90-minute piece set in and around a large, shallow swimming pool. The characters laugh and make love, splash and float, drown and weep and disappear into the water, which evokes the serenity and turbulence of nature and emotion. The only other design elements are a large, palatial doorway, an elevated platform for the gods and a projected patch of sky that changes colors and moods. All these features make a striking appearance in the Lamb’s Players’ San Diego premiere of the ingenious work. Robert Smyth and Nathan Peirson have perfectly recreated the setting, highlighted by Peirson’s beautiful lighting and Smyth’s expert direction.
Like Zimmerman’s original, which went from Northwestern University to regional theaters to Off Broadway and then Broadway, the piece was an ensemble effort. She took her students with her through the whole journey, a very loyal and admirable act. But her beautiful, young hard-bodies didn’t quite have the life-experience or gravitas to pull off some of the deep emotional angst of the characters. They moved magnificently, though, and the piece seemed completely and poetically choreographed.
Smyth’s chameleon cast spans a much wider age range, and they bring considerable energy and dignity to their multi-character portrayals. But not every moment or myth works. The story of Midas, for example, which frames the play, lacks genuine emotional heft. As played by the typically stalwart David Cochran Heath, this venture capitalist doesn’t care about anything but money. He’s repeatedly annoyed by his lively, bouncy daughter ( Chrissy Reynolds- Vogele , charming throughout, winning in her agility and grace) and he speaks sarcastically about the importance of family. Then, when his daughter turns to gold like everything else, his anguished cry seems unmotivated. And when, having traversed the world to find the water to wash away his curse, his reunion and salvation, which should break your heart, fail to elicit any feeling, because we can’t see him as anything more than an unsympathetic materialist. But Heath is aptly imperious as Apollo, in the hilarious scene with Phaeton (amiable Nick Cordileone), a spoiled brat lounging on a float, talking to his prissy, poolside therapist (Deborah Gilmour Smyth, consistently compelling), and whining about what happened when his Dad finally gave him the keys to the ‘car’ (that is, the chariot of the sun). Gilmour Smyth is tragically touching as Alcyon , as she mourns for her drowned lover, Ceyx ( Nate Parde ). Ayla Yarkut is robust in multiple roles; Paul Maley fares best in his comic moments; Collen Kollar is especially delightful as Pomona , the wood-nymph to Greg Thompson’s amusing Vertumnus . Gilmour Smyth’s sound design and original music (particularly the gorgeous a capella singing) are stirring. Unlike the original version’s mostly diaphanous white outfits, design wizard Jeanne Reith has created an imaginative and multihued array of quick-change costumes that mix the ancient and modern, withstand water and inventively evoke wealth, poverty, status or godliness.
There is something about these stories, about the power of transformation, about the emotional intensity, that moves us to the marrow; these myths are locked into our DNA, woven into the double-helix of our culture.
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through May 15.
In New York , a hard-working, highly assimilated Filipina tries to manage work, boyfriend and precocious 10 year-old son. But she’s frayed by her past and inner pain. Linda Faigao -Hall’s “Woman from the Other Side of the World” is a captivating drama of heritage and healing, with a magical, spiritual slant. Emilya ( Shanno Blas ) denies her cultural background; her son (the talented Kevin Belisario ) wants to be Italian, just to get by at school. He’s haunted by martial arts nightmares that play out his mother’s dark secrets of oppression and subjugation. And then, Ines arrives, a Philippine yaya , or nanny, sent to Emilya by her brother. Ines (the spellbinding, other-worldly Dulce Solis) is very traditional, Old World, spiritual. She bonds with young Jason but butts heads with his mother. She makes cultural headway with Emilya’s boyfriend (Brian T. Prugalidad ) and amusingly confused buddy (appealing Cherry Lorenzana ) who keeps trying on new names and identities. Ultimately, Ines performs a breathtaking exorcism and all the hidden truths and repressed feelings liberate Emilya at last.
At Asian American Repertory Theatre, director George Yé has marshaled a fine cast and along with an impressive design team, has created a magical environment. In the arena configuration of the Playhouse on Plaza, David Weiner’s multiple playing spaces are separated by darkly transparent walls that force the audience to see multiple realities. Eric Lotze’s lighting and Yé’s sound design add to the ethereal experience. The nightmare fight sequences are wonderfully staged by Sifu Dwight Love, and Sifu Brenton Wynn was the coach for arnis , the stick-wielding Filipino martial art that Belisario , who moves like a master, just learned in the weeks preceding the opening.
Philippine-born Faigao -Hall is saying something significant about straddling two cultures and two worlds, balancing (as many indigenous peoples do) the mystical and rational, modern and traditional, supernatural and quotidian.
At the Playhouse on Plaza in National City , through May 7.
THE ROSSETTI STONE
More art and self-destructive artistic genius (see “Vincent in Brixton,” above).
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was a 19th century English poet and painter, who was an amoral iconoclast, a passionate womanizer, and a brilliant wastrel. (His rather antithetical poet-sister, Christina Rossetti , was a deeply religious recluse). Inspiring dramatic material for playwright Anne Hulegard , whose “ Rossetti’s Circle” was the first of North Coast Repertory Theatre’s staged readings of New Works. The program is intended to shepherd new material through the development process, from readings to workshops to full productions.
The piece overlaps somewhat with “The Countess,” a 1999 play by Gregory Murphy, presented at the Globe in 2001. Both relate to the influential art critic John Ruskin and his protégé, John Everett Millais (spelled wrong in the program), who scandalously ran off with his mentor’s wife. Millais was part of the PRB, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood that Rossetti formed in 1848 to protest low standards in British art by imitating the innocent style of early Italian painters. The other creative members of the insular group, also present in this absorbing drama, are poet/artist William Morris and painter Edward Burne-Jones.
The intriguing, poetic, chatty but passionate play feels like a work in progress. There seem to be multiple endings, and there’s more than a bit of redundancy. But Hulegard makes Rossetti a charismatic character, and J. Todd Adams (currently winning praise at the San Diego Rep as Edgar/Tom O’Bedlam in “King Lear”), makes Rossetti irresistible. He gave a galvanic performance. He was in excellent company: his girlfriend, Dorothea Harahan (also an L.A.-based Equity actor), was stunning and pitiable as Rossetti’s devoted/neglected Lizzie. Another offstage couple, Joshua Everett Johnson and Jessica John, gave solid support as Burne-Jones and Morris’ wife, Jane Burden. Lance Rogers did an earnest, solemn job with Millais , Dennis Scott was vigorous as Morris, and Brooke McCormick, recently wonderful in “Talking With…” at NCRT, was smashing as the earthy prostitute, Fanny. Rosina Reynolds’ casting and direction were outstanding; she alternated narrators, and there were enough moves and costumes to evoke the era and define the characters. The play was extremely well served, which highlighted the promise it shows for future development. Watch for the next New Works presentation at NCRT June 29.
… Lift Every Voice, The First Annual Black Playwrights, Poets and Performers Forum and Festival will be held April 25, 26 and 27 on the San Diego Rep’s Lyceum Stage. This three-day event “celebrates the Black experience through artistic expression.” AUDITIONS are being held April 15 and 16 at The Coffee House on Broadway. The REP’s African American Council is looking for “psalmists, poets, storytellers, lyricists, choreographers, players of instruments and playwrights” to present “one-act plays, spoken word monologues and performance pieces. 619-557-0156.
…”Beast on the Moon,” an American drama inspired by horrific historical events, opens Off Broadway (at the Century Center for the Performing Arts) this month, with a strong San Diego connection. In 2002, local actor Anahid Shahrik produced an excerpt of the play for the Actors Festival, and played the lead. The overwhelming response prompted a staged reading of the complete play for Carlsbad Playreaders . When Anahid contacted playwright Richard Kalinoski about mounting a fully realized San Diego production, he said the play was optioned by producer David Grillo , who subsequently asked her to come on board as associate producer, to help him raise $1.2 million for the New York production. The April opening is timed to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, the 20th century’s first large-scale atrocity, perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks in 1915 (Armenian Martyrs Day is April 24). Spanning the decade from 1921-1933, the play is a love story whose central characters, an immigrant refugee and his mail-order bride, are survivors of the Genocide. The couple has escaped to Milwaukee to teach, grieve, heal and find redemption. Already translated into 12 languages, the play has been seen in 17 countries and has garnered 40 awards. It was produced at the 1995 Humana Festival in Louisville . Now the plan is to mount major production in other American cities (including San Diego ), and to make a film version. Anahid says “’Beast on the Moon’ speaks to my heart, as an artist and as an Armenian. It’s a beautiful story of love, survival, hope and healing.”
Previews began this week; the opening is April 27. Break legs, Anahid!
… The Baldwin New Play Festival 2005 , continues at UCSD, through April 23.
NOW, FOR WHAT’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (i.e., Critic’s Picks )
“Metamorphoses” – lovely re-creation of Mary Zimmerman brilliant creation (pool and all!), extremely well designed, dressed and directed.
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through May 15.
“Vincent in Brixton” – Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; magnificent performances, outstanding direction (by Rick Seer).
On the Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through May 8.
“Woman from the Other Side of the World” – culture-crossing, supernatural play; captivating production.
At the Playhouse on Plaza in National City , through May 7.
“Himself and Nora” – A Joyce- ful love story. A world premiere about James Joyce that may be light fare for literati but it’s well done, intelligent and entertaining.
At the Old Globe Theatre, through April 24.
“The Waverly Gallery” – heart-breaking family dramedy , beautifully acted and directed.
New Village Arts (@ Jazzercize in Carlsbad ), through April 30.
“Raisin’ the Rent” – hand- clappin ’, foot- stompin ’, heartstoppin ’ jazz and blues, sung in cabaret style by six killer performers. At Caesar’s Café downtown, through May 22.
“Pageant” – where the girls are guys and the competition is ferocious. Loads of smarm and charm, and a lot of laughs.
At Cygnet Theatre, extended through May 22.
“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.
For a little non-Taxing relaxation, try the theater!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.