By Pat Launer
It’s been quite a week for theatrical inquisitors,
Replete with highly dramatic visitors:
From ‘Women Who Steal’ and their chicanery
To ‘Hamlet’ and his brooding Danery;
A Kansas ‘Bus Stop’ of some renown
And a live performance by Jason Robert Brown.
Playwright Carter Lewis, who wrote “Women Who Steal,” has said he doesn’t mind at all when people compare his play to “Thelma and Louise.” Just because there’s a pair of gun-toting, hell-raising, liquor-besotted gals on a male-bashing joyride doesn’t mean….
But the 1998 play is actually frequently smarter and funnier than the 1991 movie, and it has a much happier (Hollywoodized??) ending. The opening monologue alone is worth the price of admission. As Karen, Shana Wride is maddeningly hyperverbal and hyperanalytical. She over-thinks, over-philosophizes and over-rationalizes her loneliness and desperation at being just-40 and still single. “Life is death,” she says in her endless (but endlessly funny) diatribe. “The very act of living is dying… Life is death in the early stages. Hope is the Moby Dick of red herrings.” Et cetera.
This occurs as two unlikely bosom buddies convene at a restaurant, Chez Louise, at 7:02 pm. The meeting has been called by Peggy (Linda Libby), whose 23-year marriage has just been shaken by the realization that Karen has had an affair with her husband. By 1:00am, they will have shot one man, kidnapped another, drunk infinite amounts of Cuervo Gold tequila, battled and bonded, celebrated a birthday, danced under the moon and returned to some semblance of normality. All in a night’s work. And what a fun, fast-paced night it is.
Under Sam Woodhouse’s pitch-perfect, terrifically-timed direction, the women are by turns amusing, annoying, reckless, hopeless, pissed-off, passed out, bitter, biting, accusatory, self-effacing, two-faced, truthful and reconciled.
Wride and Libby are a spectacular duo. One’s character is classy, attractive, over-educated, indirect, supercilious; the other’s blue-collar, raunchy, in-your-face and menopausal. And between them, as a variety of men in their lives, is Bernard Baldan, who makes an excellent, hulking outdoorsman and a sympathetic, contrite husband, among others.
David Lee Cuthbert has designed an aptly whimsical, minimalist set (excellently lit), with huge sunglasses suspended above the mostly bare stage, skewed when the story gets more so and serving as screens for humorous projections (from the candles of the restaurant to the hospital hallways). Booze bottles ring the front of the playing space, and CDs and Mercedes symbols adorn the sides. Peter Hashagen’s sound design is a hoot, with plenty of Meatloaf (Peggy’s favorite) to chew on (though I missed hearing the Meatster again at the very end of the show; it would’ve been the ideal capper).
There are moments of clarity and insight in-between the bitterness and laughter: concerning male-female miscommunication, middle age, hope and desperation, loneliness, regret and the path not taken. But mostly, it’s just a wild, wild ride.
WAITING FOR THE BUS
William Inge is often called the playwright of the Midwest, just as Tennessee Williams (who first encouraged him to pen plays) was the writer of the South.
Inge had a major success with “Come Back, Little Sheba” (1949) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Picnic” (1953). “Bus Stop” came along in 1955, and then “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs” (1957). After a string of failures (despite successful films of all these as well as the screenplay for “Splendor in the Grass”), Inge committed suicide at age 60. His life story adds a little more poignancy to his play, currently being revived at the Old Globe Theatre. But it still feels musty. This evening spent storm-stranded in Kansas with a bus-load of misfits doesn’t quite have the Chekhovian feeling some critics ascribe to it, nor the star-turn the movie provided for Marilyn Monroe.
The cast is competent, but the characters are not fully fleshed out. DeAnna Driscoll brings warmth to the proceedings as the no-nonsense café owner, Grace. As her love interest, Kevin Mahoney is a bit of a cipher as the bus driver. Christian Kauffmann makes a crusty sheriff (who, with a long, scraggly beard, looks oddly Amish); Karen Zippler is all wide-eyed innocence as the young high schooler working at the café and dying to know about art and life. Stephen Payne has a touch of sadness (though not much skill on the guitar) as the aging, regret-filled cowboy/chaperone, Virgil). Ben Fox is twitchy and volatile as Bo, the young, impetuous, virile virgin cowboy who is certain he must wed the lost chanteuse, Cherie, since he’s bedded her. Kate Steele is attractive and seductive as Cherie, but not as damaged and troubled as one might hope. She strikes some definite MM poses (the pout and hesitant smile) but she doesn’t quite capture the suffering and vulnerability. Only Jonathan McMurtry mines the full depth of character and torment we’d like to see in all these folks, in order to make us care about them. McMurtry’s self-loathing, dissipated professor is pitiful and gut-wrenching.
There’s a little quirk in Robin Sanford Roberts’ dusty Western pit-stop. The text refers to it as ‘Grace’s Diner,’ but the neon sign on the set reads ‘Grace’s Café.’ What calls most attention to itself, though, is the direction. It’s slower than a Midwest summer. It lopes along at a pokey pace, and though Joe Hardy may be trying to isolate the individual interactions (also highlighted by Aaron Copp’s focused, area lighting), the pauses between conversations are prolonged and disquieting. It’s like each group is waiting for the other to finish before they start saying anything. There’s no natural rhythm and flow, no credible overlap in the exchanges. This makes for a long, slow evening. The play is just not that ponderous. And though there may be something to be said about revisiting a simpler time, there’s a definite undercurrent of melancholy beneath the pioneer/ survivor mentality here, and that, sadly, is missing from this production.
PASS THE DANISH
It’s The Big One. For some, the Holy Grail. “Hamlet” is no Midsummer Night’s Dream. But undaunted, Lamb’s Players Theatre has leapt into its first Shakespearean tragedy with zest and confidence. It’s a celebrational production: 10 years for the company in its Coronado homebase, and the 100th production directed by Robert Smyth.
Artistic director Smyth has put a Lambsian spin on the masterwork. Harking back to his company’s street-theater roots, he places the Players center stage. As the First Player, he comes out to introduce the piece (though it was somewhat unnerving that the company couldn’t trust that the audience would understand who Hamlet is, where the play is set, and what’s happened before the action begins. Even first-timers, many of whom seemed to be at the Sunday matinee I attended, could surely follow all that; it’s right there in the script). Throughout the show, the Players appear to make music (sound and music design by Deborah Gilmour Smyth, with Chrissy Reynolds Vogele especially noteworthy on the recorder) and one or another of them is usually visible somewhere onstage, observers to all the castle intrigue. Early on, Hamlet learns of the monstrous misdeed: his uncle Claudius murdered the king (Hamlet senior), an then married his brother’s wife, Gertrude, the Queen. The Ghost of King Hamlet comes back to ensure that his son will avenge his death.
The spare Scandinavian set (designed by Mike Buckley and Robert Smyth) is your basic Danish gray — the suggestion of an imposing castle fortress with many levels (steps winding to turrets above, and a wide staircase emerging from the ‘rooms’ below). This allows for multiple playing spaces, and for projections (wonderfully moody lighting by Nathan Peirson) on the walls. Jeanne Reith’s costumes are a beautiful, multihued, multi-era mélange, with the King and Queen color-coordinated in every scene — elegant gowns for the ladies; waistcoats, vests or monochromatic suits for the men, and gypsy-like ragtag earthtones for the Players.
It’s clear that a great deal of attention was given to enhancing the clarity of the text. The language is skillfully handled by most of the ensemble; it flows nicely, sounds natural and is readily comprehensible. The many cuts (the production runs about 2 3/4 hours rather than the traditional 4+) mostly go unnoticed, except for the ending, where there’s no final eulogy from Fortinbras, no bearing of Hamlet’s body aloft, no indication of the politics between Denmark and Norway or the succession of Fortinbras to the throne. The poetic words of Horatio cap the evening in this version (“Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”). And that actually works quite well.
But there is the sense that the language was mastered at the expense of penetrating exploration of character. Everyone does a credible job; the result is agreeable. But there isn’t the depth of character, the heart-breaking intensity we need for the play to work its magic. Perhaps a longer rehearsal period would have helped. Perhaps the depth will come with time during the course of the run. As it is, though, there is a considerable amount of gesturing and gesticulating to elucidate and underscore the words. Once again, this seems meant to clarify every word for the (presumably novice) audience. It’s often distracting and/or superfluous.
In the title role, Nick Cordileone does a fine job, though he doesn’t quite capture the full range of emotions this complex character comprises. He is extremely agile, and spryly gambols about the stage; the Hamlet/Laertes duel is especially well executed. You can see Cordileone working and sweating (metaphorically speaking); he hasn’t yet fully inhabited this enigmatic, morally/ethically multilayered character. He does anger better than melancholy. His Hamlet seems to be in total control of his faculties. There is no question about his ‘antic disposition’; he turns it on and off like a faucet. He’s definitely an intelligent Dane, a thinking Prince, but he needs to be a deeper, more profound one.
The rest of the characters are compelling, if not yet fully realized. Ayla Yarkut is lovely as Ophelia, and her madness evolves convincingly. David Cochran Heath is merrily malevolent (angled eyebrows and all) as Claudius, and Gilmour Smyth looks gorgeous as his obviously enamored new bride; her marriage seems to take precedence over her motherhood; there is little connection between her and her son. There also seems to be minimal attraction between Hamlet and Ophelia.
Greg Thompson makes a vigorous Laertes, Tom Stephenson’s Polonius is a hopeless windbag (underlined by everyone rolling their eyes every time he speaks — another non-subtle directorial choice). Paul Eggington is amusing as the Gravedigger and Walter Murray is solid as Horatio (though he speeds through his lines at times). Jon Lorenz and Dennis J. Scott make a comical Tweedle Dee-and-Dum duo as Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern.
The ghost scene is an odd conception here. It’s done as a reverse-negative animated projection (an extreme close-up of Robert Smyth), and it’s spooky, a disembodied head with wild eyes and distorted facial features. It doesn’t seem to match the tone or design of the rest of the production.
There are some wonderful elements in this monumental effort, and the Lambs are to be applauded. This is a play to come back to, to see later in the run. Well, this is a play one should come back to anyway — many many times. For it’s never the same and always speaks to us, in any era.
MARRY ME A LITTLE
Jason Robert Brown is one of musical theater’s triple-named wunderkinder (Michael John La Chiusa is another). In 1999, he won a Tony award for his score to “Parade,” which hasn’t yet made it to San Diego. His first musical, “Songs for a New World” (written when he was just 25), premiered locally at the short-lived Actors Asylum in 2002. Now along comes “The Last Five Years,” but not yet to San Diego. I went up to the Laguna Playhouse to catch the next-to-last night of the show, which will make its local debut in November, at North Coast Repertory Theatre. The major draw was that, after the 80-minute, 2-person musical, the composer-lyricist came out to do his cabaret show, which has been hailed and lauded in New York and Australia.
First, the musical. It’s deceptively simple, reminiscent of Pinter’s “Betrayal” in its time-warped depiction of a dissembling relationship. The woman tells her side starting from the end of the marriage, and the man begins his story at the beginning. They meet, and sing together, just once during the evening, for the wedding scene. There’s actually much more here than meets the eye; my husband and I were discussing the details and misperceptions of the relationship all the way home. There’s a great deal of humor (mostly in the man’s songs) and a lot of heartache. Also a lot about what men and women expect of relationship and marriage, and how they’re often at cross purposes. The role of career and success figures prominently; Jamie is a hugely accomplished, richly rewarded writer; Catherine can’t seem to make it as an actress.
The performances were engaging if not spectacular. Kim Huber has a beautiful voice, but the more thankless role, and as the resident WASP she proved more colorless. As Jamie, the archetypal New York Jewish neurotic, Rick Cornette had all the requisite angst, energy humor and charisma the role demanded — and he moves wonderfully. The seven-piece band was excellent (all strings, including two cellos!!). There were a few slow spots, and the program would’ve benefited from a song-list, but there were some knockout numbers, especially “Movin’ Too Fast” and Jamie’s alternate (original) opening number (“If I Tell You Now”) which Brown sang later in the evening. The lyrics aren’t Sondheim-sharp but they’re often clever, have a lot more heart and are tuneful and singable. I pictured Sandy Campbell playing Catherine at North Coast (her voice seemed just right for these melodies and sentiments, as it did in “Songs for a New World”). But truth be told, Brown sings his own songs better than anyone. Many seem to be tailored to his vocal range, his life and his emotional experiences. His performance energy and enthusiasm are incredible.
The audience changed dramatically from the show to the cabaret. The old folks left, and a slew of young people (including the MFA musical theater students from SDSU) trooped in; they knew all the songs. They were obvious devotees. They screamed as for a rock-star. As one SDSU student put it, “Look at this! A whole room full of theater geeks like us!”
It was impossible not to get caught up in Brown’s infectious fire, warmth and talent. His piano playing is spectacular; he’s as much a blues and jazzman as a musical theater guy. His scat-singing was such fun, and his band, The Caucasian Rhythm Kings (Randy Landau on Bass, Gary Sieger on guitar), with whom he’s just recorded an album, are gifted musicians. Brown was amusingly self-effacing, highly interactive with the audience, and obviously thoroughly enjoying himself, which made it a joy to watch him. The audience was rapturous. That Irish/Shiksa-Queen original opener for “The Last Five” was fantastic; too bad it’s mired in legal issues. “And She Cries” was very moving, as was his encore, “I Am No Prince.” (With no guidance, I’m guessing at these song titles). He brought in several guest artists to re-create numbers they’d done in his shows, mostly in L.A. (Jen Collela, Matt Cavanaugh, Misty Cotton) and finally, Amy Rider, whom he called “the first diva” to sing his best known and most-covered song, “Stars and the Moon.” And, he said, for many years she was the only one he’d let sing it. She did a soulful rendition, which brought tears to her eyes and stirred the whole assemblage. The cabaret was as long as the show, and an even bigger treat. Watch for Brown; he’s in line to be one of the major musical Movers and Shakers.
THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“Women Who Steal” — deliciously wicked fun; wonderfully acted, directed and designed. At the San Diego Rep through Feb. 22
“Kimberly Akimbo” — spectacular production; hilarious, poignant, incredibly well acted and directed; at 6th @ Penn Theatre, through Feb. 22
“Fully Committed” not much story, but a true tour de force by David McBean; he’s a knockout: 40 characters — and a whole lot more! At Cygnet Theatre, through Feb. 29
Comedy rules in the theater right now… but there’s drama aplenty to. And for some real domestic drama, how about Performing Arts League Arts-Tix for V-Day!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.