By Pat Launer
Try to Fathom local theater’s joys,
From to The Women to Master Harold …and the Boys.
Local shows can become an addiction
From dance to drama to sexy Pulp fiction.
THE SHOW: PULP, a 2004 Chicago premiere by Patricia Kane (book and lyrics), with music by Amy Warren and Andre Pluess
THE STORY: 1956. Tough Terry Logan thinks it’s time to give a farewell wave to the WACs (after flying too high with one too many generals’ daughters) and she lands in Chicago, where she falls into The Well, a steamy lesbian bar . She soon takes up with one of its denizens — sexy, cynical Bing — but she’s really taken with the glamorous and mysterious owner, Vivian. Meanwhile, the blonde barista, Pepper, has a long-term hankering for Winny who, like Viv , is still trying to convince herself that she can make it with men. Everything sorts itself out by the end, which is happier than any of the mid-century lesbian pulp fiction the piece is spoofing. The story is really about sexual identity, being personally honest and self-accepting, and taking a chance on love. It’s a quirky, frothy romance, with music, comedy, drag and a bevy of beautiful women.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The production boasts top-flight co-directors: Delicia Turner Sonnenberg (founder/artistic director of MOXIE Theatre) and Jason Southerland (founding artistic director of Boston Theatre Works, who directed the New England premiere of Pulp). They’ve assembled an outstanding ensemble – MOXIE regulars/co-founders Jennifer Eve Thorn, Live Kellgren and Jo Anne Glover, in addition to Terri Park and Jessica John (artistic director of Backyard Productions). They are all stunning and talented. Glover (with her deep, sultry alto) is the only one who can actually sing, but they all know how to put over a song. The songs aren’t the main attraction anyway, though each character has a turn in the spotlight, with lyrics like “I’ve tasted love’s baguette… but you’re my one regret.” Every comical, over-the-top line gets punched (some even get punctuated by comic sound or lighting effects and stop-action freezes). The noir mood is pitch-perfect, thanks to David Weiner’s dark, woody set, replete with jukebox and mirrored bar; Chris Walsh’s moody lighting, Shulamit Nelson’s gorgeous array of period costumes (provocatively sexy or butch) and Missy Bradstreet’s excellent hair and makeup design.
But it’s these wonderful women who make the show soar, who make every line fraught and funny: Park as the macho, gun-toting characters (the Sarge and Winny , short for Winchester), a kind of lost but gentle soul, still trying to prove herself and compete in a man’s world; Thorn hilarious as a pretty, pouty -lipped Monroe-type (Pepper), who loves and quotes (and sometimes resembles) Barbara Stanwyck ; Glover delightful as self-assured Terry, the new girl in town (“I’m a lesbian plain and simple. I don’t make any bones about it,” she says repeatedly, till others finally pick up on her theme); Kellgren chic and urbane as elegant, eloquent Viv , who knows French better than she knows herself; and stunning, seductive John as Bing, the tart-tongued femme fatale. Casts don’t get any better (or more beautiful) than this. They keep the laughs coming without over-camping it, and they make this 90 minutes fast and sassy and endlessly amusing.
THE LOCATION: A co-production of MOXIE and Diversionary Theatres, at Diversionary, through June 11.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
THE BODY BEAUTIFUL
THE SHOW: FATHOM: BODY AS UNIVERSE, a world premiere collaboration between choreographer John Malashock (founder of the 18 year-old Malashock Dance), Tokyo-born visual artist Junko Chodos and Israeli composer Ariel Blumenthal, all attuned to the story of an influential 9th century Buddhist monk.
THE BACKSTORY: Kobo Daishi (aka Kukai ) espoused a provocative theory, created a sect of Buddhism and achieved mythical status in his native land. He believed that the human body is the perfect vehicle for understanding life’s mysteries. The most direct path to enlightenment, he felt, was looking inward and becoming intensely aware of physical sensations. So the three artists brought their creative inspiration and ingenuity to the task of representing that philosophy. which paralleled The Buddha’s contention that “In this fathom-long body, the whole of the universe is revealed.”
The piece is structured as a series of six segments related to Kukai’s beliefs in the connection of mind, body and spirit, ranging from Sorcery (the world of magic and spirituality) to Mandala (the unity of intellect and emotion), from Communicating with Nature to The Tantric World (harnessing sexual energy to gain contact with one’s spirituality).
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The delicate, ethereal costumes, predominantly black or earth-tones, sometimes with a splash of bright color (designs by Tina Haatainen Jones) change with each segment. The look and sound of the production are lovely; Chodos ’ long, linear, frequently-changing panels float down from the fly-space and create a rich, textural, abstract chimera of craggy mountains or raging seas. Jennifer Setlow’s voluptuous lighting makes the images fairly jump off the mylar panels which are in fact flat, but seem deeply dimensional. Blumenthal’s stirring soundscape is alternately jarring and meditational , filled with chanting and mystical sounds, drumming and electronica , excellently performed by percussionist Steven Schick and 25 singers from the San Diego Master Chorale, under the direction of Martin Wright.
The production begins with Sorcery, a majestic melding of ritual and ceremony, wherein a Prospero-like conjurer breathes life into those around him. Here and elsewhere, Michael Mizerany makes magic with his whole muscular body. The corps (seven other dancers) surrounds him in twos and threes, intertwined; and then he is left alone with the marvelous Emiko Hihara , whose feather-light body is as lithe as a nymph or, in the Tantric section, as rigid as a corpse. She spends a good deal of her time airborne, whether lifted aloft or rising on her own buoyancy. There is some beautiful imagery in Communicating with Nature, where the dancers move like fawns and other animals of the forest, pitter-patting their hands on their skin. There’s a potent, leaping male duet (athletic Victor Alonso and Greg Lane ). The Tantric World opens the second act, and it is one of the strongest of the segments, with Mizerany and Hihara coming together, hands to each other’s heart, arms extended, a symbolic linking and leaning, independence and interdependence, of the yin and yang, the masculine and feminine side in each of us. Their eye contact is direct; their connection is sensual and spiritual. The other sections are not as finely etched or emotionally engaging. But the final image is forceful and eloquent – an Iwo Jima pyramid of bodies reaching heavenward, striving for enlightenment, aspiring to “Eternal Meditation on the Mountain’ where the spirit lives on. This is part of the legend of Kukai ; it is believed that he never died; he just went up on Mt. Koya and is still there, meditating.
Many of the images and intentions are universal. Though Malashock spoke of bringing his own heritage into the mix, embracing the world of Jewish mysticism, I didn’t see that represented here, and I never felt the heart-wrenching emotions I’ve experienced in response to other mystical Malashock works, such as Blessings and Curses. But Fathom touches on many universal themes of spirit and emotion, tolerance and humanity that apply across traditions and religions.
THE LOCATION: At the Birch North Park Theatre, through May 21.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Good Bet
THE SHOW: THE WOMEN, Clare Booth Luce’s biting satire of women at their worst. A cult play, movie, concept, whatever. Deliciously wicked fun in any genre. I caught a final-weekend performance at Premiere Productions (in the Avo Theatre), and I was glad I did.
THE BACKSTORY/THE STORY: Witty, outspoken, and an articulate political conservative, Luce began her career writing for Vogue and Vanity Fair, soon becoming managing editor of VF. She married publisher Henry Luce in 1935, and the following year The Women, which satirized and excoriated wealthy New York matrons, was a success on Broadway. Luce was subsequently elected to the House of Representatives twice (1943–47) as a Republican from Connecticut . During the Eisenhower years, (1953–56), she served as ambassador to Italy .
Her play deals with questions of motherhood, marriage, loyalty, friendship, betrayal and infidelity. Both women and men come off pretty badly, but it’s damn good fun all the way. The story deals primarily with Mary (or, as she is constantly and pointedly referred to, Mrs. Stephen Haines), whose previously happy existence is shattered by the realization – obtained, unintentionally, through the gossip mill – that her husband is having an affair with Crystal, a seductive salesgirl at the perfume counter of Saks. How Mary resolves this problem, both internally and externally, comprises the bulk of the play, which takes place in upscale Manhattan and the divorce capital, Reno .
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: It’s a huge-cast effort, and Premiere Productions assembled a huge cast, 21 women to play the 40 roles required. It’s the interactions of these back-stabbing ‘ladies who lunch’ that is the crux here, and some of those interactions are as viciously luscious as intended. As the gossipy Sylvia, Cynthia Marie Brooks is a hoot. She really gets to show her comic chops; in Cygnet’s Patté Award-winning ensemble of The Little Foxes, she was the sensible voice of reason; here, she’s the nastiest of a bad bunch. The strait-laced, deluded Mary is played with stalwart skill by Suzanne Oswald, most familiar as the managing director of the Actors Alliance. She is totally credible here, the only character who actually changes during the course of the play. All the rest maintain their tongue-wagging, venom-spewing sameness. Deja Bleu Ginsberg is terrific as the temptress Crystal, Katherine Forbes is funny as the oft-married Countess De Lage , Estrella Esparza is aptly amusing and kvetchy as the ever-pregnant Edith, and Colette Guilfoyle is an uppity, no-nonsense matriarch as Mary’s mother. April Boatman is compelling as the play’s second but more genial husband-stealer and Anya Singleton does a fine comic turn as Olga the Manicurist.
Premiere co-founders, partners and producers Randall Hickman and Douglas Davis really had a field-day with this show. Davis designed and constructed the suggestively opulent set (red velvet setee and all), and Hickman directed the effort, designed and ran lights and sound, and coordinated the wonderful, colorful, elaborate period costumes. And he also did the photography, program and publicity, while Davis served as box office manager. Amazing. And astonishingly effective. And as if all that weren’t enough, they mounted another play at the same time, back at their own theater, the Broadway in Vista . Can you spell plucky (or is it masochistic?) More on What’s Wrong With This Picture? next week.
RIGHT THERE IN BLACK AND WHITE
After two years of talking and planning and delays, the San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre finally dipped its toe into Athol Fugard’s masterful MASTER HAROLD… AND THE BOYS. It was only a reading, but a very potent and promising one. The company, homeless for several years, is trying to mount a full production, while proceeding with a plan to do staged readings of several plays by the late, great August Wilson, starting, appropriately, in August, at Cygnet Theatre. Master Harold is considered to be Fugard’s most personal work, because it relates a boyhood incident which haunted him for years until he tried to exorcise it by writing this play in 1982. The action is set in 1950, on the southeast cost of South Africa , in the restaurant owned by the parents of Harold ( Hally ). Two black servants, Sam and Willie, have been employed by the white family for years, and they’ve been an integral part of Hally’s upbringing. Hally has educated Sam with his schoolbook knowledge, while Sam has tried to teach Hally vital lessons about life and humanity. In a racist, apartheid country, and with a crippled, boorish, alcoholic father, Hally has turned to Sam as father figure and positive role model. Clearly, the play, which doesn’t really feel dated at all, given the state of the world, is not just about apartheid. It concerns acceptance, human relationships and becoming a man. The casting was excellent, and Joe Powers did a fine job with a trio of more than fine actors: Antonio TJ Johnson, Mark Christopher Lawrence and Jason Connors. The accents were a little uneven or inconsistent, except for Lawrence, who totally nailed the South African cadence, rhythm and pronunciation. But the acting was flawless. Johnson was the wise, avuncular Sam, who wasn’t too noble for an angry, aggressive act when pushed too far. Lawrence ’s Willie was excellent; a simple, misogynistic and abusive guy who can’t understand why women don’t want to dance with him. And Jason Connors made a wonderful journey from jocular child to racist, demeaning monster. It was a chilling evening, and one that should be seen by everyone.
Let the speculating begin….
The Tony nominations were officially announced this week, and Jersey Boys, which has already snagged a raft of other awards, got 8 noms . Interestingly, in the 50-plus year history of the Tonys, another show that started at the La Jolla Playhouse, Thoroughly Modern Millie, was the first and only musical ever that outside New York and went on to win the Tony as Best Musical.
The Drowsy Chaperone , a new musical that pays homage to musical theatre lovers, received 13 nominations, the most for any production this season. Amazingly, The Color Purple, a truly uninspired show, garnered 11 noms , but there is, of course, the Oprah Factor.
There are loads of San Diego connections this year, and that’s really inspiring. First, of course, there’s Des McAnuff, artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse, who helmed Jersey Boys and is nominated for Best Direction of a Musical. He’s going up against Casey Nicholaw (for Drowsy Chaperone), who came up through the ranks of San Diego Junior Theatre, playing such roles as J. Pierpont Finch in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Another alum of Junior Theatre is adorable San Diegan Christian Hoff, up for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical – for his role as Tommy DeVito in Jersey Boys. Other JB nods are for: Best Musical, Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical (John Lloyd Young, who plays Frankie Valli), Best Book of a Musical, Best Musical Orchestration, Scenic and Lighting Design.
But the Playhouse isn’t the only local theater cashing in this year. The Old Globe boasts a nomination of the dynamic, beloved Chita Rivera for Best Performance by Leading Actress in a Musical (for Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life, that premiered at the Globe last fall). Others who have Globe connections include the aforementioned Casey Nicholaw , who choreographed the Globe’s 2004 production of the musical Lucky Duck); director Daniel Sullivan (up for Best director for the play, Rabbit Hole; directed Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, Cymbeline and others at the Globe); nominated scenic designers John Lee Beatty, Bog Crowley, Santo Loquasto , Michael Yeargan and David Gallo; costume designers Gregg Barnes, Susan Hilferty, Paul Tazewell and lighting designers Kenn Billington and Howell Binkley (up for Jersey Boys, also designed lighting for The Full Monty) – all of whom have worked at the Globe.
Thus far, Jersey Boys has received eight Drama Desk nominations, six Outer Critics Circle nominations and four Drama League honors. The Outer Critics Circle has named John Lloyd Young Outstanding Actor in a Musical and Howell Binkley Outstanding Lighting designer. The show won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Musical, and the Drama League award for Best New Musical. The Drama Desk Awards will be announced this Sunday, May 21.
FYI… The Tony Awards, named for actor/director Antoinette Perry, are administered by the League of American Theaters and Producers, the industry trade association, and the American Theater Wing, a charitable group that started the Tonys in 1947. This year’s nominations were made by a committee of 23 theater professionals; there are approximately 750 eligible Tony voters, including actors, writers, producers, stagehands, press agents and theater owners. The awards only include Broadway theaters of a certain size. As of mid-week, there was still no host named for the awards broadcast, which will air on June 11. Stay tuned…
THE ULTIMATE HOW-TO
If you’re a serious actor, you won’t want to miss this year’s edition of an invaluable workshop: How to Audition Like a Professional. The presenters are a local cast of Who’s Who: David Ellenstein, Kristianne Kurner, Sean Murray, rosina Reynolds and Sam Woodhouse. The “institute,” as it’s being called, will include eight hours of coaching over two nights, a resumé review, and a DVD of your audition session. It all takes place at the University of San Diego on June 5 and 6; tuition is $129; limited enrollment, register online: www.comforum.org (sponsored by the communicationFORUM , a non-profit organization).
…Carlsbad Playreaders conclude their season with a reading of Craig Wright’s high school reunion play, The Pavilion (seen at the Old Globe in 2001, directed by Craig Noel – his 226th Globe production), featuring Scott Drummond, Juliana Lorenz and Terry Scheidt (7:30pm at the Carlsbad City Library). Monday, May 22.
… Chronos Theatre Group presents a staged reading of the legend of Shakuntala , written by Halisada , considered the greatest of all ancient Indian playwrights (7:30pm at 6th @ Penn), Monday, May 22.
…In case there isn’t enough going on May 22, don’t forget about the San Diego Performing Art’s League’s STAR Awards, that honor the volunteers that keep all the non-profits up and running. Bravo to all of them, and to Gold Star honorees and magnanimous arts supporters, Sheryl and Harvey White. www.sandiegoperforms.com
…In concert with the 13th annual Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival: A Tribute to an Uncommon Playwright: Wendy Wasserstein at North Coast Rep, which features readings of Uncommon Women and Others (June 5), directed by Rosina Reynolds; Isn’t It Romantic (June 6); I’ll be part of that high-profile cast; which also includes Rhianna Basore , Tom Zohar, Ralph Elias and Christy Lipinsky , co-directed by Todd Salovey and Emily Cornelius; and Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Heidi Chronicles (June 7), featuring David Ellenstein and Lynne Griffin from the successful San Diego production of 1992. What fun! Tix @ 888-776-NCRT or www.northcoastrep.org
IN THE NEWS…
The biggest, saddest news of the week is the passing of one of San Diego ’s finest and most respected theatermakers, Kurt Reichert. He was just planning a big birthday bash for his 90th on June 3. Instead, it’ll be a memorial. Apparently, he died peacefully, in his sleep. And that’s a good way to go. But he will be sorely missed. His smiling face, his ardent support of all theatermakers, young and old, his talent – as an actor, poet and writer, his stories and potent history – all made him unique and irresistible. I was so glad that I got the opportunity to spend some extended time with him, preparing a long article I wrote about him a few months ago for the San Diego Jewish Journal. He was seen most recently on local stages in 2004, when he was ragged and otherworldly as the Soothsayer in the Old Globe production of Julius Caesar. And in 2005, at the 14th annual Actors Festival, he produced and acted in his first character-driven dialogue play, Beyond the Rain, about the legendary rainmaker of San Diego, in which he appeared with co-writer Jason Connors, both story and onstage reality a perfect blending of age and youth, just the kind that he so enjoyed. He also spoke about appearing in a film this year, “Bus Stop Love.”
Last fall, Kurt was invited by his alma mater, the prestigious Max Reinhart theater academy in Vienna , to present, for the institute’s 75th anniversary, some of the poems he’d written just as the Nazis were taking over Vienna , and shortly before his family luckily escaped to the U.S. He was 22 at the time (1938), and the poems, some of which he translated into English and presented – at the Actors Festival in 2002, and recently at 6th @ Penn and again at the JCC – were moving, gut-wrenching and inspiring. I was fortunate to be in the very rapt and appreciative audience at the JCC. Kurt’s poems were about everyday people, gentiles and Jews, living in the shadow of The Horror and reacting to the onslaught. He destroyed the poems after he wrote them, and committed them to memory, only to be written down again when he was safely out of Austria , on a ship bound for the U.S. After he was removed from his position at the Reinhart Institute, many of his Jewish teachers and mentors were asked to leave (the name of the school even had to be changed), and it was very meaningful to him to be invited back to talk about those times, poetically, in his mother tongue. “I was confused about my feelings about being an Austrian, a Jew and an American,” Kurt said of the European trip, when he visited Holocaust memorials in Vienna and Berlin . “I go around thinking ‘This is the past; it’s over.’ I didn’t go around trying to forget or pushing to remember. But it was latent. It’s a process for me to think this through.” He spoke with optimism of Europe ’s coming-to-terms with its past, and of his own future. He was a little miffed when I wrote his age in the article, afraid it would get in the way of his being cast in plays: “Who’ll hire a 90 year-old ?” he said with that inimitable twinkle in his eyes.
Kurt first came to San Diego to be dean of the School of Social Work at SDSU (1979-1981). He and his beloved wife Betty, his mate of 62 years, who died two years ago of Alzheimer’s Disease , had toiled together in the social work trenches. Kurt was the past president of the National Association of Social Workers, who honored him this year at their 50th anniversary celebration. When Betty was failing, he cared for her tirelessly, and brought her to the theater relentlessly. He kept up his lovely, artifact- and memento-filled Normal Heights home, and loved to entertain. His annual holiday party was always a treat – gastronomically and conversationally. He was a delightful, charming, elegant, Old World, young, hip and politically active man. He was a good friend, a fascinating conversationalist and a wonderful human being. Smart, funny, witty, knowledgeable, gentle, kind and genuinely caring. We won’t see his like again soon. As my 88 year-old mother always says, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to!” Rest in Peace, Kurt. And rest assured that you won’t be forgotten.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Critic’s Picks)
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Pulp – side-splitting spoof of lesbian pulp fiction; terrific ensemble
A MOXIE/Diversionary co-production, at Diversionary Theatre, through June 11
Fathom: Body as Universe – beautiful, haunting production
Malashock Dance at the Birch North Park Theatre, through May 21
Nocturne – magnificently written, superbly performed; a poetic contemplation of grief, loss and redemption
New Village Arts at Carlsbad jazzercise, through May 27
No Way to Treat a Lady – hilarious noir musical (murder CAN be tuneful and funny!), an outstanding cast, well directed
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, through June 4
Crave – very well done, but not for everyone (dark, confusing, disturbing, depressing)
At Lynx Performance Theatre space in Clairemont, through June 11
Trying – an autobiographical two-hander, a tad predictable, but excellently acted, directed and designed
At the Old Globe (Cassius Carter), through May 21.
Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit – drop-dead uproarious. RUN, don’t saunter, to see this side-splitting spoof of Broadway shows, with the mega-talented Off Broadway cast. Limited engagement; what are you waiting for?
At the Theatre in Old Town , EXTENDED through June 11.
While you’re (still) waiting for spring, cozy up to a theater near you!
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.