By Pat Launer
‘ Marat and de Sade ’ have plenty to say,
And so does Kushner in “ A bright Room Called Day.’
While “A Man of No Importance’ is strutting and fretting
A bride escapes her own “Blood Wedding.”
And if you missed it, it’s really a shanda ,
The tale of ‘…a Young Lady from Rwanda .’
THE SHOW: ‘A Bright Room Called Day, an early work by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tony Kushner (Angels in America ), revised and updated
THE SCOOP: Outstanding cast, fabulous ensemble work, beautiful wardrobe, provocative play (of course! It’s Kushner!).
THE STORY, BACKSTORY, PLAYERS: When Tony Kushner wrote this play, set in 1932 Berlin , he was drawing an unambiguous parallel between the crimes of the Third Reich and the Reagan Administration. Once again, though, he proved to be prescient. Kushner is a visionary, maybe even a prophet. He wrote Homebody/Kabul before we went into Afghanistan . And these days, from the corner café to the blogosphere , there are far more mentions of Nazi tactics in the current regime than there were in the Reagan era. Kushner does tend toward polemic at times, lecturing, sermonizing and beating you over the head. The modern-day character in this play, a paranoid, morally outraged Long Island Jewish anarchist named Zillah (charmingly played by Amanda Sitton ) is unnecessary. We can make the links ourselves; we don’t need the anti-Bush posters and tacked-up newspaper articles with screaming headlines about Rove and Cheney. The thinking theatergoer (and Kushner’s usually preaching to the choir) will figure it out for him/herself. The up-to-the-minute revisions that director Brendon Fox has added feature the news of the day and make the play startlingly timely. But the central characters and premises of the play would work well on their own.
It’s enough to watch this clique of artists and activists in a Berlin apartment, bantering and philosophizing, grumbling and complaining, but not really acknowledging the peril of the encroaching Nazi presence or doing much about it. A few compromise their values for the sake of work. Some fall under Hitler’s spell. Some side with the Communists; some leave the country. Foreshadowing his brilliant work to come, Kushner gives them otherworldly visitations, from Die Alte , the Old One (ghostly Priscilla Allen), an ever-hungry phantom, and the devil himself (billed as Gottfried Swetts ). Richard Baird makes a magnificent cameo appearance in this role, menacing and amusing, controlled and controlling. A delicious near-parting shot from the soon-to-be-departing master thespian, who’ll be honing his craft even further with the Ashland Shakespeare Festival come January.
Daren Scott is fey and funny, and aptly unsettling, as an openly gay psychologist who glibly believes that fascism is a function of sexual repression. Lauren Zimmerman is well grounded as Agnes, the jittery and ambivalent actress who’s the host to all the goings-on, and Ron Choularton is amusing as her lover, a one-eyed Hungarian filmmaker who tends to make witty pronouncements rather than proffering practical resistance. Jessica John is Paulinka , another actress, whose survivalist tendencies lead her to compromise her principles. John looks more beautiful with every entrance, in the gorgeous vintage costumes of Michelle Hunt.
THE PRODUCTION : The set (David Weiner) has the look and feel of the time, but it’s unlikely that artists like this would have nothing artistic on the walls. Otherwise, the detail is commendable. Jennifer Setlow’s lighting perfectly underscores the shifting moods and ethereal presences of the 25 short scenes, and Francis Thumm’s music and sound design are whimsical and era-evocative – from Marlene Dietrich to Louis Armstrong to Kanye West (for Zillah), with the knocking of the faulty plumbing played live offstage on a waterphone . The design elements are well integrated, and the projections of Nazi advancements and governmental devolutions are chilling without being intrusive. Fox’s direction pulls it all together in this wonderful collaboration of Backyard Productions and Diversionary Theatre.
THE LOCATION : Diversionary Theatre, through December 4.
RUNNING TIME : 2 hrs. 15 min.
WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT, ALFIE?
THE SHOW: A Man of No Importance, the latest creation from the Ragtime team of Lynn Ahrens (music), Stephen Flaherty (lyrics) and playwright Terrence McNally (book), which won the 2003 Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical
THE SCOOP: A heartstring-tugging chamber musical about the power of theater to transform lives; another San Diego premiere directed by Rick Simas (his fourth in a row: A New Brain, Honk ! , and Bat Boy preceded this one)
THE STORY and BACKSTORY: Based on the 1994 indie film of the same name (starring Albert Finney), the musical, set in 1964 Dublin, centers on Alfie Byrne, a bookish, blue collar bus conductor who’s prone to reciting poetry to his rapt riders (only his boss objects). Alfie is also the director of a community theater group, filled with oddballs and prima donnas, which operates in the neighborhood church. He has a very strong affinity for Oscar Wilde, and when he decides to stage the controversial Salome, all hell breaks loose – in both his personal and professional life. But even though he’s outed – and ousted from his beloved avocation—he learns about love, self-honesty, the transformative power of art and taking a stand in the world. Homophobic beatings and a conservative church critical of art and willing to shut down contentious productions, are more than casually reminiscent of current times.
THE PLAYERS: The MFA students in musical theater (and some undergrads and alums) bring polish and shine to this little gem of a show, a warm and sentimental musical filled with lilting Irish-tinged tunes (skillfully played by musical director Wendy Thomson on keyboard, Jim George on various woodwinds, including an aching flute, and Greg Lawrence on violin).The talented alums include: Alison Bretches , who provides lively choreography, Eric Vest as Robbie Fay, Alfie’s attractive co-worker (and object of his desire) and Chris Moad stepping in as the sensitive stage manager, Baldy O’Shea, who sings the lovely, tearjerking ballad, “The Cuddles Mary Gave.” The Irish accents may come and go, and some actors are more convincing than others, but Omri Schein makes a splendid centerpiece as the title loner, a lifelong bachelor who only comes alive in the presence of literary greatness. As his sister, who only wants him to get married and doesn’t understand his fascination with “Books” (a wry, funny song), Ryan Beattie is a delight.
THE PRODUCTION : The set design (Sean Fanning), a raised stage with proscenium arch, is well done and well, if sometimes darkly lit (Bonnie Breckenridge). The costumes (Gillian East-Zink) offer period and class identification, and give evidence of how behind the times Ireland was while the U.S. was building up to the Summer of Love.
THE LOCATION : The Experimental Theatre on the campus of SDSU, through November 20.
RUNNING TIME : 2 ½ hrs.
NOTE: A 90-minute concert version of the musical will be presented as a benefit at Diversionary Theatre on December 6 and 7 (619-220-6830). Proceeds will benefit both Diversionary Theatre and the SDSU Musical Theatre program.
WE WANT A REVOLUTION — NOW!
THE SHOW: Peter Weiss’ expectation-exploding play, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (aka Marat/Sade ) was a shocking piece of theater when it opened in New York in 1964. I remember it well. It’s a tougher sell now, and a tough piece to stage.
THE SCOOP: Some arresting visual images, but a great deal of screaming. Over the din, two perfectly pitched performances.
THE STORY: It’s 1808, and we’re all visitors to the notorious Charenton asylum. Its most famous/infamous inmate, the depraved Marquis de Sade , is staging a play within the play. The crazies are all around us, the Director of the clinic is watching, and we squirm for many reasons – not least of which, these days, is the relevance of the arguments the Marquis is making: about the endless plight of the poor, the nefarious aims of the rich, and the rationales and repercussions for war. I hadn’t seen the play in decades, and now I’ve seen it twice in five months. Both productions (UCSD and ion theatre) had large casts and much to commend them. But despite creative direction, both still kept the audience at bay, as onlookers rather than frightened participants.
Ion’s artistic director, Claudio Raygoza, tries to make use of every nook and cranny in (and outside) the Academy of Performing Arts . It’s a great idea, but it fails to achieve the desired effect. We start outside, watching an aged asylum ‘inmate’ (Trina Kaplan) lumber around, washing out rags and hanging them on the rocks next to a blazing fire. This goes on for awhile. Then she pours out the dirty water in a circle around us, getting rather close. She beckons us inside, where the rest of the inmates are in statue-like poses. It isn’t particularly threatening or alarming, as it could/should be. After being led through a narrow hallway (alas, no grabbing/groping inmates there), we got to our seats and watched the story from a distance. There is a great deal of history here, arcane distinctions between the Jacobins and Girondists , details of the French Revolution and the philosophical rantings of the revolutionary Jean Paul Marat and the Marquis. The Marquis’ play tells the story of the murder of Marat in his bathtub in 1793 by the youthful, patriotic Charlotte Corday . But the revolutionary talk incites the residents and they have to be subdued – via torturous means.
THE PLAYERS and PRODUCTION : The huge cast is provocatively attired by Sarah Schneider and Kate Stallons . But they do scream. Many voices were already hoarse and strained on the night after opening. The UCSD production had more intriguing stage pictures, implements of torture and more precisely etched crazies. They also had musicians, so the songs were sung rather than chanted or intoned as at ion. The volume level was so high – from the shrieks to the incessant banging of a pole by the Herald (Jennifer Jonassen ) – that the confrontation between the two theorists was even more absorbing, because it was conducted in a ferociously controlled, seething and subdued tone. Everything became just so much noisy background behind the transfixing performances of a regal Raygoza as de Sade and riveting Matt Scott as Marat , with his sickly mien and rolled-back eyes. These finely nuanced, beautifully balanced performances make the otherwise uneven evening worth seeing.
THE LOCATION : The Academy of Performing Arts on Alvarado Canyon Road ; through December 4
RUNNING TIME : 2 hrs. 10 min.
THE SHOW: Blood Wedding, the ground-breaking 1933 play by avant garde Spanish poet/dramatist Federico García Lorca, translated by Langston Hughes, adapted by Melia Bensussen
THE SCOOP: Some wonderful ideas and striking stage pictures, but the cast and conceptions are uneven
THE STORY and BACKSTORY: In these days of gangs, violence and runaway brides, the story could have been ripped from the newspaper. And it was inspired by an actual occurrence – a crime of passion Lorca read about in the news: an Andalusian bride elopes with her cousin, prompting her jilted groom to murder her lover. The play is part tragedy, part social commentary, written against the backdrop of the approaching Spanish Civil War. The murderous vengeance of the rural community can be viewed as a symbol of the extremism, intolerance, repression and inflexibility of society. And, it was class distinction that prevented Leonardo and The Bride from sustaining their relationship in the first place. The drama of passion, betrayal, fate and a long-standing family blood-feud is a tantalizing mix of realistic folk drama and surrealistic poetic technique, which makes the play difficult to manage successfully. Under the direction of second year MFA student Gerardo Jose Ruiz, this production only partly succeeds, and the modern adaptation is grating at times, with an overuse of modern vernacular like ‘Shut up!’
THE PLAYERS Multi -talented third-year MFA student Mark Emerson, who’s been a welcome onstage presence at other theaters around town, is a standout. He captures the varied tones of the piece, with sardonic flair and probably the best voice on the stage – though Ruiz’ music is atonal and difficult to sing. Most of the performers seemed tentative and uncertain with his non-melodic songs (the guitar and violin accompaniment often sounded more Irish than Spanish). Emerson is delectable as a female Neighbor and eerily all-knowing as the two-faced Moon, whose mask covers only one side of his face. Quonta Beasley is an ideal counterpart as the Beggar woman, Death, stumbling along on crutches to meet the moon and conspire against the lovers. Brian Hostenske is affable and somewhat pitiful as the clueless Groom; black-clad Jennifer Chang is very severe as his mother. Ryan Shams plays the Bride’s father like a slick sharpie. The Bride (Teri Reeves) and her lover, Leonardo (A.K. Murtadha ) are attractive, and there are, at the end, moments of palpable passion between them. But there’s a lack of energy and consistency in the performances overall.
THE PRODUCTION : The wood platforms of the set (Caleb Levengood ) are serviceable, but there’s real magic in the tree-like pillars that tilt precariously as things start to go awry. The costumes ( Paloma Young) are fascinating, but not always well motivated. The recurring red yarn is a nice, bloody touch.
THE LOCATION : The Mandell Weiss Forum Theatre on the campus of UCSD
RUNNING TIME : 90 min.
BONUS SHOW: I caught the penultimate performance of the one-acts at 6th @ Penn… all about racism or one sort or another. Canning Jars, by Sandell Morse, read by Flo Semelmaker , tells a story familiar to many, if not all minorities; in this case, Jews. It’s an all-too-frequent occurrence: the casual, offhand, racist remark (like “Jew him down,” or “cheap Jew”), the speaker barely thinking before taking, showing zero sensitivity (or concern) about the recipient’s response. The piece is a slight one; some pleasant images and detailed descriptions of rural Virginia , and it was nicely read. But no new insights here. To me, it sounded like a writing class assignment: Describe a personal experience of prejudice.
Local playwright Craig Abernethy contributed The Sort of Happy Ending to the Sad Tale of Mr. Ali Ali or: The Lighter Side of Outsourcing Torture., an absurdist circus on serious themes. The game cast – Tony Beville , Celeste Innocenti , Sven Salumaa , hunky and convincingly beleaguered Elzie Billops (in the title role) and adorable and ever-perky Beth Everhart – generally cavorted, cartwheeled and played multiple characters. But some of the pointed political sarcasm and irony fell flat; ultimately, the earnest tale of the poor, racially profiled, mistakenly arrested Mr. Ali and his anguished wife (angst-ridden Innocenti ) was more compelling than all the hoopla and histrionics around it.
The acme of the evening was unequivocally the Sonja Linden piece, I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda . Dale Morris played a middle-aged English poet who takes a job helping refugees write their stories, to help with their healing. His first client, a Tutsi survivor of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda , is Juliette Niyrabeza (Monique Gaffney). We watch these disparate characters as their trust and mutual understanding evolve and expand, until she finally unfurls her tightly coiled memory and tells the details of the horrors that befell her family. The script is clunky in structure, consisting primarily of alternating inner monologues. Claudio Raygoza’s direction maximizes the sense of intrigue, though it’s odd to have one actor (Gaffney) sport a very pronounced accent, and the other, none; the piece is written with many Englishisms , and an American inflection is jarring. It is Gaffney’s performance that keeps us riveted, slowly unfolding to reveal an intricate fabric of many colors and emotions. With every production (and she’s been quite busy this year), Gaffney shows growth, development and a fine-tuned honing of her craft. And versatility, too. This shy, constrained and emotionally damaged young woman is quite a contrast from the brash, aggressive, teen addict Gaffney recently played in In Arabia We’d All Be Kings. In that play, she was frightening; in this one, luminous.
NEWS ON THE RIALTO …..
… Too late! The Post-Menopausal Monologues, ‘Tales from the Far Side of Fifty,’ is completely sold out. SRO crowd expected (and there will, I understand, be some standing room). Look for news of a reprise performance in this space.
…Last chance to steep yourself in Instant Theatre, a 24-hour collaborative dramatic experience. Local artists will be randomly grouped to write, direct and perform 12 short 5-7minute original plays. Anyone can sign up. You can participate in any capacity. The event takes place at 6th @ Penn November 19th and 20th. For info or to sign on, contact producer/director Raab Rashi . Space is limited to 12 writers, 12 directors and 40 actors. The final performances will be held on Sunday, November 20 at 6 and 8 pm. Tickets are $5. InstantTheatre@hotmail.com .
… LOTS of SD connections on the Great White Way these days. Recent huge articles about the Globe (Dallas Morning News) and the La Jolla Playhouse (NY Times). I’ll be talking about the Broadway connection on “Full Focus” on KPBS-TV (channel 15/cable 11) on Tuesday, November 22, 6:30 and 11pm. Be there!! Great stills and videos, too! Earlier that day, at 10:30 or so, I’ll be on These Days on KPBS radio (89.5FM, about 10:30am) talking about the upcoming holiday season onstage.
… Don’t forget BRAVO San Diego this weekend, Saturday, Nov. 19 at the Westgate Hotel: 1600 performers representing 83 performing groups, tastings from 75 local restaurants and wineries, and 1200 well-heeled, well-dressed patrons . This huge, festive gala brings together the arts and business community. You might want to be there, too!
… The Old Globe celebrates its 8th annual “Seuss- abration ” on November 30. In conjunction with its annual production of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (with a new Grinch this year!), the Globe will be welcoming 600 children from underserved San Diego schools, for a free performance, lunch and fun activities. Starbucks is even providing snow for the kids to play in.
…You win some, you lose some (theater spaces, that is). Not only is St. Cecilia’s, the 10-year home to Sledgehammer, scheduled for the wrecking ball in January, but Adams Avenue Studio is closing its doors on December 1. One loss is irrevocable; maybe the other isn’t. On the plus side, Eveoke Dance Theatre will be premiering Hips, its new documentary-theater performance, created and choreographed by artistic director Gina Angelique, in the new Tenth Avenue Theatre, 930 10th Avenue . The former church, a four-story building, was built in 1928. The rooftop is an old basketball court that Eveoke will use for its latest hip hop show next summer. All floors, the rooftop and the ground-floor theater are available for rent. 619-238-1153
Hot News from UCSD:
… The hugely talented playwright, Mat Smart, a UCSD MFA alum, is having a heyday with his marvelous play, The Hopper Collection, which premiered at the Baldwin Festival of New Plays last year. The quirky comic drama is getting both East and West coast premieres: at the Huntington Theatre in the Boston area, and at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco . Mat’s also been commissioned by South Coast Rep. Way to go!
Fascinating performances you should keep in mind:
…A Shakespeare benefit for NCRT, featuring excerpts from Julius Caesar, Romeo & Juliet, Othello, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream…presented by a cast of San Diego allstars : Priscilla Allen, Richard Baird, Kandis Chappell, David Ellenstein, Jonathan McMurtry and Rosina Reynolds. Monday, November 28 at 7:30pm. $35. 1-888-776-NCRT.
… Chronos Theater Groups is presenting another in its series of readings of the classics, Athalia (1691), the last play written by the great French dramatist, Jean Racine. The drama draws on the Old Testament story of Athaliah , Queen of Judah and worshipper of Baal, who is threatened and finally forced to concede victory to Joash , a son of the house of David and survivor of Athaliah’s massacres. Monday, November 21 at 7:30pm, at 6th @ Penn Theatre; 619-688-9210. $10/7.
… Common Ground Theatre, directed by UCSD Professor Emeritus Floyd Gaffney, presents its holiday favorite, Black Nativity, a gospel song-play written in 1961 by Langston Hughes. November 25-6 at St. Paul ’s Cathedral (619-298-7261) and December 1-18 at the Lyceum Space in Horton Plaza .
… Grass Roots Greeks will present a reading of Sophocles’ Electra, translated by Marianne McDonald and billed as “the most lucid versions of the story of one of the great heroines of ancient tragedy.” Monday, November 21, 7:30 pm at Adams Avenue Studio. 619-584-3593.
… Before its esteemed artistic director, Richard Baird, heads off to the Ashland Shakespeare Festival, Poor Players is presenting two readings: the San Diego premiere of Dakin Matthews’ adaptation of King Henry VI Parts 1-3 (Monday, December 5 and Monday December 12 at 7pm at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Pt. Loma) and King Richard III (Monday, December 19, 7pm at North Coast Repertory Theatre. $10 donation. Reserve at email@example.com or 619-255-1401.
… Stephanie Casenza , executive director of the San Diego Performing Arts League for the past two years, will be moving to a new position at SDSU on December 31. Marketing Director Judith Anderson will serve as acting director while a search is conducted.
… Rick Hernandez, who served for four years as the volunteer executive director of the La Jolla Stage Company, will become the new executive director of Centro Cultural de la Raza / The Chicano Performing Arts Center in Balboa Park . This is very good news; hopefully, the Centro will get back on track as a presenter of visual arts, dance, music and theater programming, as it has in the past. Buena Suerte , Rick!
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (i.e., Critic’s Picks );
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
“A Bright Room Called Day” – provocative, disturbing, funny, prescient play in a gorgeous ensemble production.
At Diversionary Theatre, through December 4.
“A Man of No Importance” – a heartwarming story with lush Irish music, and fine performances
In the Experimental Theatre on the campus of SDSU, through November 20.
“The Winslow Boy” – beautifully designed and acted. A marvelous ensemble piece, with striking philosophical resonance.
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through November 20.
“Too Old for the Chorus, But Not Too Old To Be a Star” – if you haven’t had your fill of menopausal musicals, this is great for a date (the guys remind us it’s called MENopause ). Excellent performances , some cute/clever bits and songs.
At The Theatre in Old Town , through January 1.
Time to give thanks for all you’ve got – including scads of theatergoing opportunities!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.