By Pat Launer
Student puts Shakespeare to the test
In the first annual local Fest
While the New Plays at UCSD
Were all about sibling rivalry.
And Mamet’s Romance, a tad outré,
Is farcically both macho and gay.
THE SHOW: Romance, David Mamet’s first foray into farce (2005)
THE STORY: If you thought Political Correctness was already in decline, Mamet is here to beat it to death, mercilessly. He’s entered the realms of comedy, cynicism, sarcasm, machismo, misogyny and homophobia before. But farce? Well, Molière he ain’t. Though he’s got political skewering on his mind, like so many lame lampoonings, the proceedings – in this case, courtroom proceedings — descend into abject silliness, which dissipates the entire point. It all starts out reasonably enough, in a stodgy, wood-paneled courtroom (excellent design by Nick Fouch; more on that later).
All rise for the judge. The plaintiff and attorneys enter, and then all hell breaks loose. The gobbledygook lawspeak is replaced by namecalling, backbiting racism. The fact that high-level Arab-Israeli peace negotiations are being conducted nearby triggers philosophizing, infighting, and attempts to make peace in the Middle East . The accused is a chiropractor and he thinks the conflict would be resolved if all the concerned parties could just get an ‘adjustment.’ [Linguistic sidebar: The text’s repeated confusion between ‘chiropractor’ and ‘chiropodist’ only works if the latter word is pronounced in the preferred – in my dictionary, the only – way; that is, KI-ropodist, not, as everyone in this cast insists on saying, SHIR-opodist. I don’t think Mamet – or anyone else – would be amused].
The whole legal case hinges on this confusion, since the chiropractor assaulted another man who accused him of being a chiropodist. As the judge gets distracted and digresses, going on about “warring peoples” and Shakespeare’s potential Jewishness, and overdosing on his allergy medication, the two attorneys go at each other, and we’re off, with an unrelenting barrage of Mametian cursing and racial epithets. Taking the biggest hit are the Jews (of which Mamet is one) and the Christians, the Arabs, Hispanics and terrorists. And of course, the entire judicial system. There are a few potshots taken at the government but they pretty much go unnoticed (by those onstage and off). Oh, and did I mention that, by the end, everyone confesses to being gay? The set converts delightfully to an apartment (a flat-screen is revealed on the side of the judge’s bench; first it’s an aquarium, later a projected fireplace – wonderfully inventive!), and we get a little domestic scene between the pedantic, professionally nit-picking prosecutor and his barely-clad boy-toy, which devolves into a knock-down/drag-out about burned pot-roast. When the pretty-boy in his ultra-gay glad-rags makes an appearance in the courtroom, everyone goes to homo hell in a handbasket.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Director Sam Woodhouse has traffic-copped everything at a hyperactive pace that should heighten the humor. Not everyone is equally up to the task. But the standouts are hilarious: hangdog Peter Van Norden as the nutso judge, Ruff Yaeger as his mothering Bailiff, Steve Gunderson as the officious defense attorney, and uproarious John Altieri as Bernard (aka Bunny), the queenie, hissy -fitting provocateur. Matt Henerson isn’t as funny in his serious or outrageous scenes as he should be. Steve Lipinsky as the Defendant and Craig Huisenga as the Doctor have less to work with than the others.
Bunny’s costumes (Jeannie Galioto) are especially noteworthy (the leopard bikini works well, as does the multicolored getup he sports in court). Even though there are some laughs (usually at some group’s expense – how easy it is once the initial tittering embarrassment wears off, to go for the discriminatory jugular), the whole doesn’t add up to much beyond foul-mouthed farcical fluff. Substantive themes hinted at are introduced but undeveloped. Mamet is too busy being cute and clever and arch and offensive, with his endlessly overlapping, if snappy dialogue. If his point is that contemporary life is one big farce, well duh. I can’t help feeling that if David Mamet’s name weren’t on this play, it wouldn’t have gotten half the attention it has.
THE LOCATION: The San Diego Repertory Theatre, through May 21.
WHO CHOPPED DOWN THE CHERRY TREE?
THE SHOW: The Cherry Orchard , Chekhov’s last play, which premiered in 1904, on the playwright’s 44th birthday, just six months before his death from tuberculosis
THE BACKSTORY/THE STORY: Theater director Tom Moore (who helmed the La Jolla Playhouse production of The Cherry Orchard in 1997) once told me that “Chekhov helps you find out what’s going on in your life. Things going great? Do Chekhov, and that’s what it’ll be about. A lot of tragedy in your life? Then that’s what it’ll be about.”
What the play actually is about is change, and that’s also reflected in the personal backstory of the cast. It’s the changing of the guard at SDSU, just as it is in turn-of-the-last-century Russia in the play.
Tradition in the SDSU Theatre Department dictates that in their final year, faculty members are honored onstage; they get to choose and appear in a production of their choice, one that has special meaning for them. Retiring distinguished emeritus theater professor, European theater scholar and graduate program coordinator Anne-Charlotte Harvey chose The Cherry Orchard. So the tragicomedy has additional bittersweet overtones for Harvey , as she plays Ranevskaya, a woman rooted in the past, unable to face the present and future. But by the end of the play, when her beloved cherry orchard and family estate have been sold off, face it she must. Just as Harvey will confront her own new life, after 36 years at San Diego State . Adding to the poignancy, Harvey is joined onstage by her husband, retired professor Michael Harvey (whose SDSU swansong in 2001 was a star-turn in The Tempest, a story about a wizard who lays down his magic). And rounding out the high-profile performers are retired faculty C. E. “Dude” Stephenson (who helped create the Dept. of Drama in 1969, served as Department Chair in the 1970s and founded the musical theater program at SDSU) and current professor Peter Larlham (a popular acting/directing/improv/history/theory teacher who came here from South Africa in 1987). Heavy-hitters all. And they unequivocally elevate the level of the production.
Just to reiterate the storyline: The play deals with a once-wealthy and esteemed Russian family: Lyubov Ranevskaya, her brother Gaev, her daughter Anya and her stepdaughter Varya, and the loss of their ancestral family home and lands. Impoverished after the death of the alcoholic Mr. Ranevsky and the dissipation of the family fortune by the extravagance of his wife, the Ranevsky’s are incapable of acting to avoid the sale of the estate to pay for their debts. They are the ineffectual, vain and idle aristocracy, who ultimately become victims of the wealthy, materialistic businessman Lopakhin, once a peasant on the estate. The “eternal student” Trofimov makes the play’s social context and ideological treatises explicit: the abolition of the feudal system, the rise of the middle class, the old giving way to the new (age subsumed by youth), and moving on from the past into the future. Trofimov’s speeches were seen as early manifestations of Bolshevik ideas and his lines were often censored by Tsarist officials.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The Stephen Mulrine translation used for this production has condensed the play, to some degree favoring clarity over eloquence or poetry. It’s a serviceable, intelligible text, better delivered by the faculty than the students, most of whom haven’t mastered the depth of character required; they are skimming the surface and most don’t make a splash.
The buoyant but foolish Ranevskaya, in her petulant refusal to accept the truth of her past – in both life and love, having lost a husband and a child — is a very compelling heroine, a woman who sacrifices everything – her youth, her fortune and her/her family’s happiness – for love. But as portrayed by A-C Harvey, she isn’t a vibrant charismatic force of joie de vivre. She’s dressed in fairly somber hues (costumes by graduating masters student Beth Herd) and she’s played in melancholy tones. Michael Harvey is also rather low-key (not as nutty or boring or rambling as some) as her brother Gaev. Both are overshadowed by the ebullient, energetic performance of Larlham, who makes this his show. His Lopakhin isn’t as much the bumpkin or fool as some have played him, but he’s a man who’s taking charge – of himself, the orchard, the estate. He’s full of ideas and action, a stark contrast to the torpor of the family and the vague, indistinct portrayals of the other characters. His fumbling failure to propose to Varya seems to be part of his master plan to sweep away the past and break free, even though he could have become part of the Ranevsky family he’s so long admired. His empty, heartless materialism is the precursor of the real estate developer of today, bulldozing all traces of history and treasured artifacts to make room for more condos (in Chekhov’s day, it was cottages), tearing down trees to ‘put up a parking lot.’ As the bent, aged, senile Firs, Stephenson provides a touching finale and throughout, comic relief (Gaev’s incessant billiards references don’t register as either funny or pathetic here). Vanessa Hurd is lively and bawdy as the maid, Dunyasha, who loves the hapless Yasha (winningly pratfalling Nick McElroy). Nicole McLoud is lovely as the ingenuous ingénue, Anya, and as her no-nonsense, hardworking sister, Varya, Kelsey Venter is capable and credible. As the student Trofimov, Jason Perkins has the look, but not the tragically delusional passion. And without a deep, convincing feel for his ‘truth over love and beauty’ philosophy, his fervent pronouncements come off as one-note pontifications.
The scenic design (Jungah Han) is minimalist, but once the trees of the beloved orchard are projected on it, the setting takes on depth and character. Brian Shevelenko’s lighting enhances the set pieces. For Han, Herd and Shevelenko, this production is a thesis project for their MFA in design. (Note: Shevelenko won a 2005 Patté Award for his killer lighting of Bat Boy, The Musical at SDSU). Directors/professors Randy Reinholz and Jeff Morrison haven’t quite elicited the full extent of the play’s pathos and pain. And that keeps us at a distance, observing rather than identifying with the timeless characters.
THE LOCATION: SDSU’s Don Powell Theatre, through May 6.
LOOP THE LOOP (Y)
Well, it’s official. Five of the six UCSD Baldwin New Play Festival 2006 plays concern competitive, often dysfunctional sibling relationships. Couldn’t be just coincidence. That includes one of the one-acts, written by the first-year MFA playwrights, and the wonderful rework of alumnus/faculty member Ken Weitzman’s marvelous the As If Body Loop. The only exception to this year’s rule was Alex Lewin’s Water Street, in which the two main characters are gay men in 2003 New York . It’s post 9/11, and the cynicism and sense of loss is crippling formerly promiscuous Martin (excellent, intense Scott Drummond). Fresh-faced farmboy Bobby (delightfully innocent Brian Hostenske) is equally lost. They come together one night and try to face a new tomorrow. The acting was terrific, under Lori Petermann’s taut direction.
In Catching Flight, by Lila Rose Kaplan, two sisters have suffered the loss of their mother and the emotional abandonment of their father. In the 13 years that elapse during the course of the short play, they lose each other and their individual sense of self. But when they reunite in the Rodin sculpture that their mother loved, it is art that brings them together and allows them to take flight. Sarah Rasmussen did a wonderful job making the compact little play soar, thanks to excellent, convincing performances by Liz Elkins and Molly Fite. These writers already have a voice and a intriguing perspective. In some ways, these plays, though shorter and less densely layered and complex than the full-length plays, were more satisfying in terms of the arc of the story and the fleshing out of credible characters.
During last year’s Festival, UCSD playwriting alum Ken Weitzman presented a staged reading of The As If Body Loop, a play commissioned by the Arena Stage in Washington , D.C. Now, he’s revisited and reworked the piece, streamlining, clarifying, eliminating and adding scenes, deleting unnecessary characters. And the result is spectacular. A provocative, thought-provoking story of a bizarre, unconventional and highly spiritual family, the comic drama confronts a neuroscientific theory (same as the play’s title) that posits that there may be ‘sympathetic responses’ to traumatic event s by onlookers or loved ones, even in the absence of the initiating stimulus.
Everyone in this family is incapacitated by an infirmity that harks back to a damaging experience with an abusive father who died 15 years ago. In various ways, they all experience each other’s pain — physically, emotionally and viscerally. One of them may in fact be one of the Lamed Vovs, from Hebrew numerology, two letters that add up to 36. According to arcane Jewish teachings, at any given time there are 36 people on earth chosen by God to carry all the pain of the world. How these three dysfunctional adults (and their wacky Mom) heal each other is a marvel of wit, humor, imagination, theoretical concerns and sheer ingenuity.
The dialogue is crisp and funny, the themes often disturbing. It’s a wonderful piece of work, once again brought to life by Weitzman’s favorite director and spouse, talented Amy Cook. I thought the cast last year was outstanding, but this year’s ensemble even tops that. Rubber-faced Ryan Shams, so remarkable in another of the Festival’s new plays, Ruth McKee’s The Nightshade Family, was perfect as the older brother, who uses his football fanaticism to great effect, including dealing with his chronic, debilitating stomach pain. Eduardo Placer was spot-on reprising his role as the always-second-best younger brother, who has recurrent facial rashes. As their slightly addled “attic lady” mother, Julia Fulton was not as nattily ethereal as Katie Sigismund last year, but she was more real. And Scott Drummond, who played one of the brothers last year (and was so excellent in this year’s Water Street – see above), did a superb job as the perpetually angry patient of the sister of the family, (captivating Hilary Ward), whose body temperature is rapidly dropping to 38 degrees, and she shivers as she compulsively sings snippets of Christmas carols.
This mesmerizing play deserves a full-blown production – many of them, in fact. I hope we’ll be hearing about it, and Weitzman and Cook (and their adorable offspring, Moses and Theo) soon, as they head off Atlanta , where Amy begins a post-Doc at Emory University . But we still get one more parting shot from at least part of the family. Cook will be directing UCSD’s Spring undergraduate production: Amy Freed’s uproarious conjecture of Shakespeare authorship, The Beard of Avon (5/19-27). We’ll miss these gifted theatermakers sorely… but all good luck to them in their next Act.
… Extra bonus at the Festival: UCSD alum and nationally recognized playwright Naomi Iizuka was a special guest, looking wonderfully content and noticeably pregnant with her first non-theater co-production with multi-talented actor/carpenter/musician Bruce McKenzie, co-founder of Sledgehammer Theatre, who was busy on tour with his band. Hope to see the fruit of their labors soon!
THE BEST BARD BIRTHDAY EVER
Perfectly scheduled to coincide with Will’s 442nd birthday, San Diego ’s FIRST ANNUAL STUDENT SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL was a huge, unequivocal success. When you think that the letters didn’t go out to potential participants till December, it’s amazing that director Mike Auer and the San Diego Shakespeare Society were able to work such magic in such a short time. At the final count (with Torrey Pines High School unexpectedly dropping out at the last minute – bad form!), there were 23 schools represented, directly involving about 200 kids. It was terrific to see them all parading around the Prado in Elizabethan costumes! It was thrilling to see them, from the very youngest elementary students, mastering the mouthfuls the Bard penned, with apparent understanding, affection and a genuine sense of fun and adventure. The gathering began at the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park , and then a parade, led by the gorgeously costumed Cheshire Singers, proceeded to the two stage areas – dubbed The Rose and The Swan — one near the reflecting pool, the other near the large fountain. There was lots of comedy and plenty of drama. One group ( Mar Vista High School ) set their Midsummer in the antebellum South. Another (high schoolers from the SD Civic Dance Company) were dressed as flappers for a whimsical dance collage inspired by two sonnets. A Midsummer Night’s Dream definitely won the prize for most popular source material. It showed up in at least eight performances, each of which lasted 15 minutes. Next year, I think there should be some control over the plays or scenes, so there aren’t quite so many Piramuses and Thisbes floating around (though the two I saw were pretty hilarious: one from High Tech Middle Media Arts, and the other from United Scholar Academy Middle School). It was noteworthy, if not downright disturbing, that all the participants were from private, parochial or charter schools (and, in the case of the talented Hollingsworth family, home-school). No San Diego City Schools or other public schools would get involved, because they reportedly couldn’t take time out of the tightly-controlled curriculum, bound as they are to the test-based fiasco of No Child Left Behind. Next year, something has to be done to encourage the public schools to take the chance and the plunge; if this isn’t a learning experience, what is?
The organization of the event was outstanding. Transitions between performances were fast and efficient. No one blew their lines or lost their cool. The audience – friends, family and passers-by – were rapt and appreciative. And the kids were obviously loving every minute of it, attentively watching other performers, flaunting their fabulous clothes, patiently awaiting the awards ceremony at the end of the day. Twelve statuettes were presented, in the High School, Middle School and elementary School categories, for Best Scene (Drama, Comedy, Collage ) or Outstanding Performance. Below, find the total list. Overall, the demonstrable success of this mammoth effort will be invaluable in applying for grants to support next year’s event. If you missed it this year, don’t you dare do that again. The future of theater is in the hands of young people. To paraphrase the inimitable Craig Noel, if we can turn them on young, we’ve got ‘em for life. Congratulations to all, and all hail the winners!
Best Scene—Comedy: Our Lady of Peace, The Taming of the Shrew (dir. Kathleen Herb Baker)
Outstanding Performance—Comedy: Brandon Cano, Lucentio from Our Lady of Peace’s The Taming of the Shrew
Outstanding Performance—Comedy: Yessenia Garcia, Titania from The Preuss School UCSD’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Best Scene—Drama: Poway High School, Hamlet (dir. Rollin Swan)
Outstanding Performance—Drama: Jesse Schwab, Hamlet from Poway High School’s Hamlet
Best Scene—Collage: San Diego Civic Dance Co., Sonnets with Interpretative Dance (dir. Andrea Feier)
Outstanding Performance—Collage: Morgan Hollingsworth of the Hollingsworth Home School, for a monologue as Launce from Two Gentlemen of Verona
Best Scene (2): High Tech Middle School, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (dir. Perla Myers)
United Scholar Academy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (dir. Moira Caswell)
Outstanding Performance: Sam Hargrove, Bottom from High Tech Middle School’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Outstanding Performance: Aubrey Carswell, Bottom from United Scholar Academy’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Outstanding Performance: Stephi Neifeld, Olivia from La Jolla Country Day’s Twelfth Night
No schools met the criteria for Best Scene competition
Outstanding Performance: Rebecca Myers, for a sonnet recited in Hawthorne Elementary’s Sonnet Collage
… and speaking of birthdays (Shakespeare’s — remember?) 6th @ Penn, the plucky little space that provides a home to so many groups and productions, just turned five. Overcoming obstacles financial, spatial and otherwise, Dale Morris and his gutsy perseverance, with support from resident playwright Marianne McDonald and many others, has managed to produce and host some exceptional productions, and keep afloat, if hanging at times by his proverbial fingernails. Morris has just signed a new lease for the tiny Hillcrest storefront space, through November 2012. This haven for homeless theater groups has provided work, funds, support and showcases for countless theatermaking San Diegans (and visitors).Now, if he can just get a bathroom backstage for the performers, the place would be complete. It’s tiny (j49 seats), but it’s the ultimate in intimate theatergoing. You’re practically onstage when you’re watching, as much a part of the performance as the performers. Long may the little space wave! And don’t miss its brief reprise of I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda , with its Patté Award-winning performance by Monique Gaffney , along with Dale Morris. A very touching two-hander, excellently done. May 7-10 only. And two new long-term productions open this month as well: David Hare’s The Blue Room and John Patrick Shanley’s Four Dogs and a Bone. Support the small theaters of San Diego ; they’re what make the community varied and vibrant. www.sixthatpenn.com
IN THE NEWS…
… the 13th annual Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival closes the San Diego Rep’s 30th anniversary season. Artistic director Todd Salovey has lined up an impressive array of presentations, including performances from the full runs of Malashock Dance’s Fathom: The Body as Universe (May 18 at the Birch North Park Theatre), Eveoke Dance Theater’s Soul of a Young Girl: Dances of Anne Frank (May 24 and 25, at the 10th Avenue Theatre); and A Tribute to an Uncommon Playwright: Wendy Wasserstein at North Coast Rep. Readings of three plays by the late, lamented groundbreaker include Uncommon Women and Others (June 5), Isn’t It Romantic? (June 6, and I’ll be part of that cast); and Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Heidi Chronicles (June 7), with Lynne Griffin and Steve Gunderson re-creating the roles they played at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre in 1992, and David Ellenstein (who’s calling this “The Geriatric Chronicles!”) reprising the role of Scoop he also played long ago. ( see photo of David with Lucie Arnaz, whom he just directed at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami ). Other features of the Jewish Arts Festival are: a reading of a new play, Blessings of a Broken Heart, adapted (from the book by Sherri Mandell) and directed by Salovey (June 20) and The Gift: Celebrating Cara and Her Kids, in Theatre and Song, a Cara Freedman musical extravaganza featuring the talented student of the San Diego Jewish Academy On Stage (May 31).
… and speaking of students and musicals, the talented graduating class of SDSU’s MFAs in Musical Theatre will present their final showcase at the Theatre in Old Town, Monday, May 8 at 7:30.
… and , something Wicked this way comes… Broadway San Diego, which announced its upcoming 30th anniversary season, broke all records this week, nearly selling out the summer run of the smash-hit musical backstory of The Wizard of Oz, Wicked , three months ahead of its opening here. There MAY still be some single seats available for the 16-performance run (July 26-ugust 6), but as of May 1, they were scarce. That’s 45,000 seats sold, pretty much in one day (except for advance subscription sales). When the box office opened at 6am, 1200 people were there, one actually arriving at 6pm the night before. Whoever said San Diego wasn’t a an enthusiastic theater town??
… PARK PLACE
.. The 25th annual Art Alive at the Museum of Art was a huge success, with more than 100 displays of art and flowers. I was lucky to be the guest of Museum trustee Pam Cesak for the flower-arranging demo by French master Christian Tortu. What fun. I was even asked to contribute an arrangement to the show. Maybe next year…. Though one of my paintings was displayed at ArtWalk.
.. The Old Globe hosted a lovely Media Luncheon to herald its upcoming seasons – Shakespeare this summer and surprises this fall (soon to be officially announced), including a couple of exciting Broadway-bound world premieres. Jack O’Brien was briefly back in town, before embarking on what he called “the scariest year of my life”: two musicals, a Stoppard trilogy and his Met debut. Wow. He was happy to note that it seems nobody feels his absence (not true); the current work at the Globe made him kvell. He proudly introduced the men who are minding the store while he’s away – resident artistic director Jerry Patch, executive director Lou Spisto and Shakespeare Festival artistic director Darko Tresjnak – saying, “There’s nothing as reassuring as knowing your children are doing well in graduate school.” Spisto reported on the robust financial status of the Globe, and its highest subscription rate (55% of all seats) in 15 years. Most of all, he wondered “if San Diegans realize how rare it is to have so many Broadway-bound productions kicked off here. It’s a very unusual market.” Indeed it is.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Critic’s Picks)
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
The Constant Wife – a gorgeously designed, fast-paced and funny production
At the Old Globe Theatre, through May 7.
My Fair Lady – spectacularly inventive production; beautifully designed, directed, acted and sung
At Cygnet Theatre, EXTENDED to May 7.
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.
Celebrate Cinco de Mayo –Grab your tequila (and your little hot tamale) and go ….. to the theater!
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.