By Pat Launer
A week chock-full of laughter and tears:
Liz, Hecuba and The Last Five Years.
With Sir Patient, too, it sure was a tank- ful ;
Plenty of theater for which to be thankful.
A ghostly prologue, a spectral presence. Enslavement, revenge and murder most foul. In its relentless misery and anguish, Euripides’ “Hecuba” has something for every tragedy-lover. It’s a powerful statement against violence, victimization and vengeance.
This regal Trojan Queen is brought down in many ways: by the Greek victors of the Trojan War, by the massacre of almost all her 19 children, as well as her husband, Priam , king of Troy . The final injustice – the murder of her youngest child, her last remaining son, Polydorus , coming close on the heels of the sacrifice of her daughter, Polyxena , pushes her over the edge; she takes control and revenge – but loses her humanity in the bargain. Her efforts at self-empowerment get her turned into a dog and dumped into the sea, as prophesied by Polymestor , the victim of her wrath, he who had drowned her son. The sheer weight of Hecuba’s hatred and misery have reduced her to mere animal ferocity.
The translation, by Marianne McDonald, is unequivocally one of her very best –- crisp and clear, radiant in the purity of its brutality and poetry. The long opening monologue, which provides background and character introduction, is presented in the disembodied voice of the ghost of Polydorus , Hecuba’s young, drowned son. Sam Creely’s words are often swallowed up and the intensity of the opening lines is lost. But at the same time, onstage, something thrilling and magical is happening to distract us. Charlene Penner, that ashen master of Butoh dance, emerges painstakingly, limb by limb, from a pile of white sail, crumpled up amid the bleak but evocative desert setting – the desolate shores of Thrace where the Greeks are stranded (excellent whitewashed design by Nick Fouch ). She later returns as Polydorus’s washed-up corpse, but she remains onstage throughout the evening, hanging from a tree, lurking in the background, an eerie phantasm, an ethereal foreboding of death.
Center stage is the compelling Robin Christ, riveting as the poor, plagued queen – regal and compassionate, wailing her way through a series of disasters no human should be made to bear. First, the sacrifice of her daughter to the ghost of Achilles, and then the murder of her youngest son. Though she weeps through it all, we see in her multi-layered performance compassion as well as despair, anger and cruelty as well as tenderness and unbridled love. Jess McKinnon is also forceful, as Polymestor – the Thracian ally turned traitor who, entrusted with Hecuba’s young son, put gold before friendship; he stole the young boy’s wealth and tossed him into the sea. Polymestor pays an unspeakable price at Hecuba’s hands: lured into the Trojan women’s tent, he is blinded, and his sons are killed. McKinnon is prideful, defensive and then brutish, made wild by his own grief and abuse, his hypocrisy replaced by hysteria. It’s up to Agamamnon (Walter Ritter) to mete out justice. Polymestor is banished, but leaves behind a dour prophesy of the death awaiting both Hecuba and Agamemnon.
Esther Emery’s direction is outstanding — focused, grounded, gritty but graceful. The rest of the cast is variable, but the central performances are chilling, gut-wrenching. Sophocles once said that while he portrays people as he would like them to be, Euripides wrote them as they really are. See it and weep.
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through December 19.
HE SAID, SHE SAID
There are two sides to every breakup story. A cross between a song-cycle and a chamber musical, “The Last Five Years” gives us a glimpse of Jason Robert Brown’s own marital discord and dissolution. He was, in fact, barred by his divorce decree from depicting too much autobiographical material. His former wife filed suit, and he had to re-work the earliest version of the show to make it more generic. It became a universal catalogue of the sweetness, pain, exhilaration and despair of a promising relationship/marriage gone sour.
First produced in 2001, “L5Y,” as it’s sometimes referred to, won the 2002 Drama Desk Award for Best Musical and Best Lyrics. Brown, who wrote “Songs for a New World” (produced a few years back by Lee Lampard at her Actors Asylum, since morphed into Cygnet Theatre) and the score for “Parade,” has been compared to Stephen Sondheim for his wit and musical complexity and weighed against the Young Turks (some, though not Adam Guettel and David Yazbek , also bearing 3-part names: Ricky Jay Gordon, Michael John LaChiusa , for instance). All write in a contemporary vernacular. Brown’s music is mostly pop-flavored, here infused with a bit of R&B, klezmer , Irish traditional and jazz.
The structure of the piece is intriguing: the two performers alternate solos, recounting the arc of their relationship in reverse order. Each song tells a story, and given that there’s so little action in the play (especially under the rather static direction of Peter Ellenstein), this is the first musical I’ve ever actually enjoyed more on CD than live – and I’ve seen it twice (the first time was the California premiere at Laguna Playhouse. After the performance, Brown came out and played songs from this show and others, and blew the roof off with his energy, passion and killer piano playing).
At North Coast Rep, musical director G. Scott Lacy, along with violinist Beth Mosko , cellist Diana Elledge and guitarist Rik Ogden, makes a small ensemble sound much bigger and quite robust. Brown has insisted that he tried to keep a balance in his characters. But frankly, the deck is stacked. While self-absorbed Jamie is a smug, arrogant writer who’s on the fast-track to success, Cathy comes off as a self-effacing whiner and loser (and not just because she’s an actress who can’t get a gig better than summer stock in Ohio, rooming with an ex-stripper and her pet snake). Jamie is consistently a more interesting person, even when he’s being a bastard, cheating on his wife, missing her birthday, saying awful, hurtful things like “I’m not gonna fail because you can’t succeed.” Cathy gets most of the downbeat songs, except for her funny “A Summer in Ohio ” and parts of the “Audition Sequence.” Jamie gets all the energy and humor, especially in the high-octane “Moving Too Fast,” the hilarious “ Shiksa Goddess” and the wonderful Jewish parable of support and encouragement, “The Schmuel Song.” She’s gets the poignant songs, especially the heart-breaking “Still Hurting.”
Neither character shows a great deal of change over time; the relationship merely exacerbates the negative qualities they started out with. Maybe that’s reality, and the show certainly smacks of that. Maybe they were a mismatch to begin with – the arrogant, self-aggrandizing Jewish intellectual and the blonde shiksa of his dreams. Maybe the fact that only once during the brief, intermissionless evening do they actually look at and sing with each other is a metaphor for their never seeming to be in the same place at the same time (except at their wedding) – literally or figuratively. But it would be nice to see a bit more connection and interaction, even if the lack of communication is the whole point of the play.
Erin Cronican plays Cathy as a mild depressive, constantly doubting herself, becoming petty and petulant, and ultimately envying her husband’s success. On opening night, she seemed to be straining at the musical extremes required of her in this difficult score. Her costume (Jennifer Hanson) was drab, too, not that flattering, and it was barely modified for changing times and temperaments. There’s so little change here overall that a few more props or costume rearrangements might’ve helped. Marty Burnett’s set is a reconfigurable set of large puzzle pieces that d get moved around by the players, sometimes needlessly, to a distracting degree.
The centerpiece of the production, besides the talent of Jason Robert is the charisma of Jeremiah Lorenz. He has triumphed as sexually ambiguous characters (Hedwig and the Emcee in “Cabaret”) but here he plays, quite charmingly, a regular if callow, exuberant guy who’s hungry for life and gets overstuffed too fast; his marriage becomes a casualty of his meteoric rise in career and ego. Lorenz moves so well, it’s a pity he doesn’t get to be more active and agile onstage. He puts on his leather jacket; he takes it off. There’s little room for him to show how multi-talented he really is. But his winning personality and voice are enthralling.
The character development isn’t deep, perhaps intentionally, since these two don’t know a lot about themselves or each other. They were too young when they wed. But anyone, of any age, can relate to their all-too-human emotions, as the relationship rises and falls.
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, through January 2.
Given the arch cynicism and deadly satiric aim of comic writers David and Amy Sedaris, self-dubbed The Talent Family, their play, “The Book of Liz,” is surprisingly tame, sappy and sentimental. Sure, they take some potshots at cultic religions, 12-step programs, illegal immigrants and mainstream medicine. But the jabs are soft and squishy, more playful than vicious. There’s no bite in this fairly uninspired, predictable and sometimes silly story of sweaty Sister Elizabeth Donderstock . She’s Squeamish, an earnest cheeseball -making member of an austere religious sect. Overextended and underappreciated, she decides to run away from her cloistered life. Her interactions with the outside world, starting with a homeless person, and progressing to someone in a Mr. Peanut costume, look like an episode straight out of the reality show, “Amish in the City”. But that’s not where this is headed, alas.
Liz lands a job at an IHOP-like Pilgrim-themed restaurant called Plymouth Crock (for which she’s already perfectly attired). The rest of the staff is mostly gay and/or recovering alcoholics. Cliché’s abound and are dutifully skewered. Liz, of course, fits right in, not only because of her “ danderfrock ,” but also because her coworkers’ AA platitudes so closely resemble the pious exhortations she’s grown up with at Clusterhaven .
We meet myriad characters, including a Ukrainian couple with Cockney accents (on the boat over, their English teacher was .. well, English), various uptight Squeamers and queenie screamers, etc. In the end, Liz actually doesn’t fit in ( Mork goes back to Ork ?) and she finds that she and her community need each other after all; you see, she possesses the secret ingredient to the beloved cheeseballs , without which, the Squeams are bereft – and nearly bankrupt.
Mostly, the show is a star turn for four clever, pliant actors, one of which, in its Off Broadway debut in 2001, was Amy Sedaris, who seemed to have found a new outlet for her screwy, manic TV persona on her Comedy Central nut-show, “Strangers with Candy.” Maybe I saw the Cygnet Theatre production on an off-night (the performance after opening is notoriously anti-climactic for actors). I dunno ; it just didn’t strike me as that funny. Certainly not the laugh-out-loud reaction I often have to David Sedaris’ books. And though Sean Murray’s direction and design were fine, and the cast was game, their various characters weren’t all that differentiated.
Annie Hinton was great as the ingenuous, honest and ever-perspiring Liz, though she didn’t draw that many laughs (the cornerstone of Amy S’s apparent caricature). The rest do bits I’ve seen them do before: David McBean’s prissy snot, Melissa Supera’s upper- cruster and her dog (she’s still the best barker around) and two indistinguishable gossips; Michael Grant Hall’s supercilious leader. McBean is best as the Ukrainian, a lot less credible as the stern, holier-than-thou-or-anyone-else Brother Nathaniel Brightbee (he who tried to take over the cheeseball biz). Supera shines brightest as the caustic doctor, and Hall as the avuncular gay restaurant manager. When these actors stretch, they’re able to reach comic heights. But they don’t really have that much comic material to work with. The piece comes off as an extended ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketch, which runs some 75 minutes and certainly doesn’t need an intermission.
If there’s any meaning or message at all, it seems to be that unadorned, untainted niceness can barely survive out in the big, ugly world. Or maybe it’s something sanctimonious, like “Judge not lest ye be judged.’ More likely, it’s Liz’s newly acquired 12-step wisdom: ‘If you don’t believe in a power higher than yourself, try jumpin ’ in the air and staying there!”
At Cygnet Theatre, through December 20.
A few factoids about playwright Aphra Behn , who wrote “Sir Patient Fancy,” which just made its delightful local premiere in a stellar USD/‘Young Globe’ production, in a too-short run at the Cassius Carter.
- She was the first professional, English-speaking female playwright.
- After John Dryden, she was the most prolific writer of the Restoration, creating more than 20 plays in her 19-year career, in addition to several novels and volumes of poetry
- She served as a spy for King Charles II.
- She was sent to debtor’s prison for debts incurred during her service to the crown.
- She was born in 1640, nearly 100 years after Shakespeare, and 18 years after Molière.
- Her first play, produced in 1670, was “The Forced Marriage,” which was also the title of a Molière play that premiered in 1664.
- “Sir Patient Fancy” concerns a hypochondriac (an “Imaginary Invalid”?) who also happens to be a religious hypocrite (a kind of “Tartuffe”?). Both Molière plays were written years before “Sir Patient,” which premiered (starring Charles II’s mistress, Nell Gwynn ) in 1678. Well, the uptight hypocrite also resembles Shakespeare’s Malvolio, and Behn ends her play saying “All’s Well That Ends Well,” so it seems that blatant literary ‘borrowing’ was fair game in the 17th century.
Perhaps most surprising, there have only been three productions of Behn’s “Sir Patient Fancy” in this country – in the past century! – and two of them were directed by our own Brendon Fox, associate director at the Old Globe.
Fox did a superb job with this production, which featured a most appealing, attractive and talented cast of USD/Globe MFA students, many of whom also appeared in the past summer’s revived Shakespeare Festival at the Globe. The play was significantly condensed by award-winning dramaturg Dakin Matthews; it still came in at close to three hours, but with the secrets, lies, multiple plots, mistaken identities, sexual intrigue and bed-hopping mayhem, the time fairly flew.
The convoluted story concerns two neighboring families – the Fancys and the Knowells — who are diametrically opposed but inextricably linked; one is dour, religious and conservative, the other free, open and liberal. There’s scheming and deception in both households – and much of it is engineered by women.
The Restoration was preceded by a period of strict moral repression. This was a time when women were just beginning to play female characters on the English stage, and Behn made the most of it, creating ladies of wit, passion, amorality and abject hedonism. This play features five leading roles for women – young and old, innocent and calculating, clever and conniving. The young people want to marry whom they choose – not those of their parents’ choosing. Some just want money, like the cuckolding wife of the title character, the stern moralist and hypocritical hypochondriac. These are stock characters, near stereotypes, but the director and cast brought them to life in deliciously precise, credible ways (within the context of a kind of sex farce, that is).
The pace was aptly frenetic, the comic timing impeccable. The scenery (designed by Mike Buckley) inventively converted from bedroom to garden and back again. The costumes (Corey Johnson) were lush, lavish and gorgeous. The ensemble was excellent, with standout performances by Matt Gaydos as the easily duped Sir Patient and Carolyn Stone as the imperious/devious Lady Knowell . A charming, enchanting production all around.
….A sad so-long to Kirsten Brandt, the immensely talented artistic director of Sledgehammer Theatre, who’s moving on to more northerly climes. She’ll be relocating to Santa Cruz , where her husband, David Lee Cuthbert, the gifted lighting designer, has been teaching. It’s a great loss to the theater community.
In 1999, Brandt took over the reins of the formerly testosterone-driven Sledge and unleashed the estrogen, producing many plays by and about women, including her magnificent “Demonology” and “A Knife in the Heart.” She created new work (“The Frankenstein Project,” “ Berzerkergang ,” “Furious Blood” and others), writing and directing a clever, nimble ensemble. She is one of few, if any, local directors to have made the step up from small local theaters to large, guest directing at Diversionary and then stepping into the rarefied air of the Old Globe (spectacular work on “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow”) and the La Jolla Playhouse (a Page to Stage, work-in-progress production of Sarah Schulman’s “The Burning Deck”). She’s already slated to direct again at the Globe (Kenneth Lonergan’s “Lobby Hero”) next year, and she’ll helm the world premiere (one of ten she’s produced or directed) of “Bright Shiny Objects,” which concludes Sledgehammer’s 19th season (opening Feb. 12, 2005).
Kirsten’s boundless wit, energy, intelligence and passionate commitment to new, good, exciting and provocative theater will be sorely missed in San Diego . Now that she’s embarking on a freelance career, we hope she’ll be free to return here often.
….What a way to go. Cy Coleman, age 75, the legendary jazz pianist and composer of timeless tunes like “Witchcraft,” “Big Spender” and “The Best is Yet to Come,” died last week after attending an opening night performance. He was felled by heart failure, which presumably was not precipitated by Michael Frayn’s acclaimed new play, “Democracy.” Coleman actually even attended the opening night party. The lights of Broadway were dimmed at 8pm the next night in commemoration of his considerable contributions to the Great White Way : the scores for “City of Angels ,” “The Will Rogers Follies” and “The Life.” He was the master composer of the brash, musical star-turn, songs like “”Hey, Look Me Over” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now.” At the time of his death, he was working on a revival of “Sweet Charity” and several different musical biographies – of Napoleon, Grace Kelly and Elaine Kaufman, the proprietor of the famed Elaine’s restaurant in Manhattan . As recently as last month, he was performing in the cabaret Feinstein’s at the Regency. As he put it, “In musician’s terms, ‘my chops are still good.’ Perhaps now he’s taken up the harp.
HOT STUFF, WORTH NOTING
… If you missed the chance to take my Verbivore Challenge on “ A Way With Words” (an all-theater, word-drunk theater quiz) on KPBS radio (89.5 FM), you’ve still got a chance to make a dramatic test of your thespian knowledge… The show is online at kpbs.org for the rest of this week. Check it out! ( click on Radio, then go to KPBS Productions, then to A Way With Words, then to ‘This Week on A Way With Words’).
… This just in… Airdate for the 8th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence. The live event is January 10, 2005. The TV show airs Sunday, Jan. 16 at 3:30pm. Hope you can make one or t’other .
… “The Play’s The Thing: A Photographic Odyssey Through Theatre in San Diego .” Come to the Launch Party, and get first crack at the gorgeous new coffee-table photography book by Ken Jacques (with Intro by Sam Woodhouse and Foreword by me). Join us all, Wednesday, Dec. 15, 5-7pm. at the San Diego Rep. Or, you can order this super holiday gift online at www.sunbeltbooks.com . Or check it out at a bookstore near you!
…I happened to catch a glimpse of Todd Blakesley’s hilarious-but-serious application for a San Diego Super Fringe International Theatre Festival, to be held in the Fall of 2006. The request, directed to the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals, projected a 10-day San Diego event that would accommodate 55 companies in five (within-walking-distance) venues, each presenting up to six unjuried and uncensored performances of one hour or less. The intent was to return 70% of the box office take to the performing artists. Also proposed: a 10-minute Play Tournament with a First Prize of $1000; a Progressive Mystery Jackpot, where patrons link Fringe clues to solve a puzzle that leads to a hidden treasure ; and a One-Page Play Slam, “the haiku of theatrical expression.” Blakesley ended his application with “a preliminary budget… included for your amusement” and this fervent plea: “In addition to our request for membership, we implore you to marshal support for annexing New England, the upper Midwest and Pacific coast states. We believe we can be happy as Canadians… considering the alternative. Won’t you please take our petition for inclusion to Ottawa ?” If edgy humor (and serious concerns) is/are what Fringe Festivals are all about, expect the best here at home come Fall !
NOW, HERE’S THIS WEEK’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED‘ LIST:
“Hecuba” – beautiful, stark production, excellently designed and directed, featuring a gut-wrenching performance by Robin Christ. At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through XXX.
“A Lie of the Mind” – tense, intense, riveting. Taut, terrific direction, outstanding performances. Damaged, dysfunctional families rule in this shattering Sam Shepard drama.
New Village Arts at Jazzercize in Carlsbad , through November 21.
“Fit to Be Tied” — hilarious, dark, richly delicious. Director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg and her excellent cast mine all the wacky, warped humor of Nicky Silver. Perfect holiday antidote.
At Diversionary Theatre, through December 4.
” Jersey Boys” — smash-hit world premiere musical, telling the rock ‘n’ roll, rags-to-riches story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Fantastic fun! Run, scamper, scurry — see it!
At La Jolla Playhouse, extended through January 2.
Happy Bird-Day! Despite a rough political season, we’ve still got a great deal to be thankful for – including a vibrant, creative, prolific theater community .. Bravo to all!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.