By Pat Launer
Last week I ran around willy-nilly,
Blitzed by Aida, Hercules and Billie.
Five nights of theater left me a wreck
(Nearly tossed myself off The Burning Deck).
This was the big surprise of the week. I thought I’d take a chance on a new company — The Ira Aldridge Repertory Theatre, and check out this attempt at a black dinner theater for San Diego. Ira Aldridge, by the way, was a black tragedian (1807-1867) who attended the African Free School in New York, and went on to make a name for himself, here and abroad, playing roles such as Othello, Lear and Macbeth.
Meanwhile, back home, Calvin Manson, poet/writer/director and former member of the San Diego Commission on Arts & Culture, founded a company in Aldridge’s name and penned a play about Billie Holiday called “An Evenin’ with Billie,” starring the amazing local song stylist Anasa Johnson.
It isn’t much of a play — just a bit of bio between songs. The setting is a small Las Vegas jazz club (here, the Caesar Café downtown), where Billie is recording a documentary of her music and life. There are a few memorable factoids, like how she got her nickname, Lady Day, from her best friend “Prez” (sax-man Lester Young), whom she considered “the President of sax players.” Then he named Billie’s mother The Duchess, “because the mother of a Lady gotta be a Duchess.” Billie calls herself “a big fat healthy broad,” who weighed more than 200 pounds by age 12 and who “usedta couldn’t sing unless I had flowers in my hair.” She was strongly influenced by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong (“I wanted Louie’s feelins and Bessie’s big sound.” The result: “I sing blues with a jazz beat.” Recently released from jail (though she never tells why), she’s having trouble landing gigs, is still ‘getting’ juiced,’ and her pianist (here, musical director/keyboardist Harry James Williams) worries that she’s “gonna go on a cryin’ jag again.” She talks about whites and blacks: “The only difference between Ofays and us colored folks is all our black’s on the outside.” Then she laughs heartily and admits, “There is no difference; we all put on our drawers the same way.”
We don’t learn too much, only that “singin’ is livin'” to her, and she “can’t stand to sing the same song in the same way two times. If you can, it’s not music.”
Well, Johnson makes plenty of music. She nails all the famous numbers — from the gut-wrenching “Strange Fruit” to the signature “God Bless the Child.” She isn’t trying to imitate Billie, and that’s just fine. She puts her own stamp and spin on the songs, whether she does them a capella (“Gimme a Pig’s Foot,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”) or with the fantastic band. In fact, the show should be called “An Evenin’ of Billie Holiday Songs.” Because that’s basically what it is, and it’s thoroughly satisfying as such. Johnson has a glorious, silken voice, supple and expressive. She may not have had as much pain as Billie (in her life or her voice); she seems much more upbeat, but she can make you weep with the way she delivers a lyric or a melodic line. The band is amazing: Williams is so good, I only wish he had a grand to play, rather than keyboards; it doesn’t do justice to the music, his skill or his style. Nevertheless, he interacts (or musically converses) wonderfully with alto sax-player Martin Murphy, who never seemed to look at any sheet music, even when Johnson changed the order or came back for an encore. Ross Renner played a mean bass guitar, and the trio’s act-opening numbers (“Take the A Train,” “Have Mercy on Me”) were terrific. It was a great evening of music all around — less theater than the club date it was written to be. The meal (a bargain at $35 with dinner, $20 without) was basic but pleasant enough, and the ambiance was lovely.
I hope Manson can realize his vision. I hope he uses his spell and grammar checker on all his written material. I hope he gets a stage built and works the kinks out of the lighting and sound systems. But all this notwithstanding, the audience was rapt, and loving every minute of the show. I was lucky enough to run into and sit with several of the Manson-supporting Arts & Culture Commissioners (and their mates): Exec. Director Victoria Hamilton, Chair Vivian Reznik (whose husband Andy got a personal birthday greeting from ‘Billie,’ much to his red-faced embarrassment!), Randy Robbins and Jeff Dunigan. What a great night! I was there with my marvelous voice teacher, Christel Veraart (www.meer.org/christelveraart), who thought it was by far the best vocal performance she’s seen in San Diego since she arrived here (from Holland, by way of South America). A grand time was had by all.
There are two more weekends of this show (August 1-2, and 15-16) — and you’d be a fool to miss this Lady Sing the Blues.
IT’S GREEK TO ME
I’ve been reading the latest book, “The Living Art of Greek Tragedy,” by local professor/playwright/translator/philanthropist Marianne McDonald. Like her translations and adaptations, it’s thoroughly straightforward and accessible. Right off the bat, she makes the point that Greek drama, developed in the 5th century B.C., was considered “a necessary part of a good citizen’s education.” Would that more people believed that today — about Greek or any other theater! “What these magnificent plays do,” McDonald continues in her preface, “is to let us look at our deepest fears and continue to live in spite of them….. When we leave the theater a strange thing happens. Instead of feeling depressed, we feel refreshed and renewed. Our lives have changed, and they have changed for the better.” She considers Euripides (480 B.C-406 B.C) to have been “the greatest anti-war playwright of antiquity.” His early play, “Children of Heracles,” includes many of his recurring themes: war, vengeance and the heroism of a young girl. McDonald’s translation of “…Heracles,” premiering at 6th @ Penn Theatre (produced by Dale Morris and Linda Castro) is as comprehensible and colloquial as she describes the original.
The play may be 2500 years old, but it’s amazingly timely, with its focus on the death of innocent children, the rights of prisoners and the plight of refugees. At the center, in aching, heartbreaking performances, are Jack Banning as Iolaos, the aged caregiver of the exiled offspring of Hercules and young Shannon Partrick as Macaria, the noble Heraclean daughter who sacrifices herself for family and country. Macaria’s speech is gut-wrenching, and when she is taken away to her death, Iolaos’ anguished cry left no dry eye in the house. The rest of the 15-member cast, under the direction of Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, is variable, many of them tending to declaim, despite the conversational tone of the translation. It’s thrilling how Sonnenberg includes the audience as if we were part of the chorus of citizens.
At the end, Dale Morris cuts a defiant figure as the King of Argos who’s captured by the Athenians. Here and throughout, we witness the counterpoint of youth vs. age. The terror of the young children is contrasted with the fearlessness of the ancient Iolaos, who is ready to go to battle in an instant. Young Macaria’s dignity and generosity are antithetical to the ranting of her grandmother (Rhona Gold) and the lack of mercy the elder shows for the Argive ruler when she orders him thrown to the dogs. “Only if I act justly,” says Demophon, King of Athens (a noble, nicely subdued Rhys Green) “will I myself receive justice.” Another message of the play too rarely heeded — in fiction or in fact, past or present, on the personal or political level. King Geroge, listen up!
The “Children of Heracles” set (designed by George Gonzalez) is suitably evocative, though the songs sound like every other musical number in the Grassroots Greeks presentations. A little variety in future, please. Anahid Shahrik makes a welcome addition with her personal grace and her choreographic moves. It would help if there were uniformity in the onstage responses; either everyone should remain neutral or everyone should react to what’s being said and done around them; the inconsistency is disconcerting. But Sonnenberg left us with a chilling image: Blind Justice with scales in hand, symbolically holding us all in the balance.
WHAT’S ON DECK?
Author/playwright and political activist Sarah Schulman is making her San Diego debut in the already-prestigious Page to Stage program of the La Jolla Playhouse. She’s workshopping her latest creation, a 20th century take on Honoré de Balzac’s 1846 novel, “La Cousine Bette.” Ironically, “Cousin Bette” was also LJP director Des McAnuff’s first foray into film (in 1998). We’re not allowed to review the work-in-progress, but I can tell you that it’s changing nightly, with notes being taken by playwright and director (Sledgehammer’s talented Kirsten Brandt, who’s making her own foray into the Really Big Time) from audience comments at post-performance talk-backs. On the night I was there, Schulman actually read us the new final scene, which was to be aired two nights hence. The story of a bitter, frustrated spinster has been re-set in 1950s New York (Schulman’s hometown) against a backdrop of emerging television, advertising, marketing and the art of subliminal manipulation. The show features acclaimed actors Diane Venora and Lionel Mark Smith, as well as local favorites Doug Jacobs and Sandra Ellis-Troy and UCSD graduate students Christine Albright, José Chavarry, Alex Cranmer and Makela Spielman. See it and see what you think.
THE BLITZ-SPRITZ OF YOUTH
Three locals and a Bay-boy. Last weekend’s Fritz Blitz featured plays by young folks who bear watching. The three San Diegans were former statewide Plays By Young Writers (Playwrights Project) winners Jason Connors (“Mud on a Little Girl’s Dress”) and Rachael Van Wormer (“Turnip”), and St. Augustine High School graduate (also a Colorado College alum) Matt Wurdeman (“24-five”). The San Franciscan of the week was Michael Thomas Tower (“A Certain Unsoundness of Mind”). Tower’s play opened the evening, and with its two-character, park-bench setting, it looked like Albee’s “Zoo Story.” Oddly enough, it also features the actor who played Peter in last year’s provocative Renaissance Theatre production of “Zoo Story.” But the similarities end there. Here, a student confronts a poetry professor, and the professor confronts him right back. The prof is a pedant, a prototypical, privileged academic (who, in that sense, resembles the teacher in “Oleanna”). The poetry-writing student is a poor, practical Latino who’s majoring in engineering because he has an obligation to support his family. The Big Question is whether the teacher will convince the student to let him publish a found notebook of personal poems, so he can pursue an artist’s life. The two men share sexual preference and a penchant for conversational pontificating or poeticizing. It isn’t always effective. But the language is lyrical at times, and it underscores an important message for our times, about the potential power of poetry, of language, of teaching. Overton is always convincing, and Juan Manzo (whose character is less so) does a fine job with the material he’s given. Brendon Fox directed in a quiet, unfussy way, which aptly underscored the language .
“Turnip” is a description and a metaphor for the vegetable condition of Rose’s mother, who’s been on life support for four years. The young girl has come home to her father and his live-in lover, Dianne, to convince him to divorce her mother and let her go, so they all can get on with their lives. This is a dark, intense little piece. Van Wormer seems to lean toward those — as playwright and actor; she just came off playing the earnest spelling-wiz in “Eleemosynary” (La Jolla Stage Co.) and a dying young woman in the Blitz. The play is also about guilt, family and coping with death. Heather Patton, Kim Strassburger and Tom Haine are all credible as characters caught in a web of self-deception. As always, Van Wormer has a lot on her mind, and she pulls us into often uncomfortable places. She’s got a fascinating imagination and she’s well on her way to becoming a superb, multi-faceted theatermaker.
Same can be said for Jason Connors, who also offers us a dysfunctional family in his dark comedy, “Mud on a Little Girl’s Dress.” The little girl does have the titular mud-stain, because of a nasty neighbor who she’d like her father (a hired killer) to knock off once and for all. “Can’t you just kill him?” she asks plaintively. Her loving Daddy gently, patiently informs her that “I don’t kill, I clean.” And besides, “Everyone Daddy ‘cleans’ has a price on his head.” All Chelsy really wants is “a normal Daddy” — and a little violent revenge. In ten minutes, Connors provokes in a sly, wily way, though he shoots for humor over depth. D. Candis Paule’s direction has just the right tone, as do the performances by Jessic Drosman and T.V. Reeves. Nasty, quirky little piece.
The evening ended with Wurdeman’s inventive “24-five,” which would have benefited from some of Connors’ brevity. The play shows the workaday lives of everyday people (a Taxi Driver, Office Worker, Coffee Shop Worker, Bartender, C.E.O. and Waitress), all wound up by Monsieur Limonaire, going through their day like automaton/marionettes, slaves to time and habit, but trying to grab their little piece of power or liberation (“Only in fantasy can true freedom be afforded”). This striving was most amusingly conveyed in the Coffee Shop monologue of Norman MacKinnon and the actress/Waitress lament of Laura Bozanich. Conceived by Megan Milner, the play featured an agile cast, delightfully directed by Terry Glaser, who put them through their puppetry paces, lugging around their own cubes to demarcate a space for their puny little music box acts. So imaginative, even if at times it felt like a theater class improv game. It looked like fun; if only it hadn’t gone on quite so repetitively for so long. The point was made, but where did it go?
Well, just one more week of the Blitz… one of the best in memory, over all. There’s only one play this weekend, and it’s the only one directed by Duane Daniels. It’s “Porn Yesterday,” an R-Rated, satirical gay romp. Catch it if you dare.
WALK LIKE AN EGYPTIAN
Verdi it ain’t. Elton John and Tim Rice’s “Aida” has a heavy-duty heritage to overcome. But of course, for many Disney-musical-goers, that isn’t a factor at all. They may not even know the opera exists. Opera-buffs, on the other hand, will be shocked by what they hear. The music and lyrics are pedestrian, and the orchestra is heavy on percussion, with a synthesized string section. Loud, but somewhat less than satisfying.
However, I went in with such incredibly low expectations that I was actually pleasantly surprised. There were some gorgeous stage pictures, as well as some drop-dead costumes (both designed by Bob Crowley). When a fashion-show of possible outfits paraded before the Princess Amneris, I was ready to bid on every one!
The story remains more or less the same — the deadly triangle of the Egyptian warrior Radames and the two women who love him: his captive Aida (a feisty Nubian princess), and his fiancée Amneris, daughter of Pharoah and next in line to the throne. Disney Theatricals, of course, had to put a sugar-coated spin on this tragedy, since (I hope I’m not spoiling this for anyone; the opera has been around since 1871) the star-crossed lovers, Aida and Radames, are buried alive in a crypt. Here, the (rather clever) framing device is a modern-day museum (strongly reminiscent of New York’s Metropolitan). At the outset, Amneris, in a stunning gilded outfit, steps out of her glass display case to introduce the musical concept that “Every Story is a Love Story.” Meanwhile, a contemporary couple cruises the exhibit. At the end, we’re back at the museum, and I won’t ruin it for you, if you’re still gonna see it some other time. Who knows who gets credit for this idea, since there were multiple book writers (the show was a mess in previews, and got repeated re-writes; it could certainly still use more!) — first Linda Wolverton, then Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang.
The music is bland and forgettable, but well sung. London-born Paulette Ivory made a striking and forceful Aida, and Lisa Brescia went for the laughs as Amneris, at least in the first act, when she’s a total princess, a Barbie-likebimbette. Then she wises up, puts her gems and her superficial materialism aside and takes control — though she still doesn’t get the guy. The style of music and dance is all over the map, and that 2nd-act opener with the laser pyramid (the 3-D one had collapsed and injured someone in previews, as I recall) needs to go. Also the X-Men look of the bad guy’s henchmen. The ‘heavy’ is Radames’ father, Zoser, played by that little Monkee himself, Mickey Dolenz, who has had a fair amount of theater experience, including the national tour of “Grease” (as Vince) and “A Funny Thing…” (as Pseudolus!). He was okay, not terrific, and Jeremy Kushnier’s Radames was strong and credible — for a 21st century ‘warrior.’ Eric Christian was thoroughly likable as the wily-but-faithful Nubian slave Mereb.
In an early interview, before “Aida” went to Broadway, Elton John described the show as “very theatrical, but very camp.. along the lines of ‘Dream Girls’ or ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show.'” So perhaps it’s best taken that way, rather than by any (absurd) comparison to the Verdi opera. The piece has won Tonys, Grammys and the Best Musical citation from the 2002 National Broadway Theatre Awards, the fan-selected honors for touring Broadway productions. Go figure. Great production values, mediocre show. But glitz, glamour and spectacle get ’em every time.
P.S. (Postponement Saga) vol. 3
Sean is ready, Cygnet is ready, Jeremiah is ready to rock ‘n’ roll, but the inspectors have been less than rapid in their readiness. So, the opening of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is now set for Aug. 1 (god willin’ and the crick don’t rise). Preview perf. July 31. Here’s how Sean put it: ” The theatre is really coming together, but we need to tech the show after the final inspections and those look to happen this week. We’ve had a majorly idiotic and awful time with these inspector coots. But our signs are up, carpet in, seats are being installed this weekend, paint is up, ceilings are in place, we are installing our lighting fixtures and bathroom tile; it is really coming and looks really great. So one more week. Most people’s jaws drop when they come in and see how truly new this theatre is and how beautiful it is becoming.” Well, we’re all ready, too! As the song goes, Let’s go on with the show!
THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“An Evenin’ with Billie” — knockout performance by Anasa Johnson, putting her own spectacular spin on the songs of Lady Day
“The Children of Heracles” — highly accessible translation (by Marianne McDonald) with two heart-stopping performances: Jack Banning and Shannon Patrick
“1776,” Lamb’s Players’ reprise is better than before; irresistible
Go Greek! Get Blitzed! Pick Strange Fruit. Whatever you do… Put a little drama in your life…
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.