By Pat Launer
Despite the ‘Freedom Fries’ outrages
French will be heard on local stages.
Frogs triumph — centuries apart —
In “Paris Commune,” “Las Meninas” and “Art.”
Now, throw in Cole Porter and toss in the Fritz
And …Vive la France! Long Live the Blitz!
It’s the story of the Princess and the dwarf. But it’s no fairy tale, and it’s no laughing matter (though the play is humorous at times). “Las Meninas,“ which means the ladies-in-waiting, takes its title from a 1656 painting by the Spanish master, Velasquez. But it takes its content from a forgotten page of French history.
Set in the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King (remember him? “L’état, c’est moi,” he famously proclaimed… sounds a little familiar these days, doesn’t it??), the plot concerns his wife, Marie-Thérèse, a Spanish royal forced into a marriage of political expedience with the hedonistic, womanizing Louis. Alienated by language and culture, she grows despondent. And then she receives a living gift — a dwarf, kidnapped from Africa. He’s also an outsider, and they grow to be friends. Before too long, the Queen is pregnant; it comes from sharing or touching saliva, says the quack-doctor, amusingly played by Jim Chovick (he later told me the moral of the story is, ‘Don’t spit!’). When a black baby girl is delivered, the immediate decision is made to pronounce her dead and to whisk her off to a convent from which she will never emerge.
So this is the story of that little girl, all grown up, still in the convent, ready to take her vow of eternal silence. But before she does, she wants to share what she knows of her history — with us, her “sisters.” She looks back at that time in 1664 when Nabo (in truth, a mere 27 inches tall — and, if the record is to be believed, a young boy, not a man) arrived at court and befriended her mother. She tries desperately to piece together her past before it is sealed off forever.
It took eight years of research for award-winning playwright Lynn Nottage to recreate the story of one woman’s expunged life. In the process, she was reminded of the Yoruba saying, ‘The same white man who made the pencil made the eraser.’ It’s a chilling narrative, beautifully told as a flashback and a cautionary tale, a poetic dreamscape and a haunting memory play. You may remember Nottage’s moving family drama, “Crumbs from the Table of Joy,” which played at the Old Globe in 2001. Her acclaimed “Intimate Apparel,” fresh from New York, is currently in production at the Mark Taper Forum, with the original director (the brilliant Daniel Sullivan) and cast intact. Nottage has an eye for a story and an ear for language. And she knows how and when to inject a little levity.
Sean Murray is a perfect match for the piece. He’s created a set of simple opulence (slick black surfaces with rich gilt trim) but there’s a twist. Apparently riffing on the Velasquez painting, which plays with the viewer’s position and perspective, Murray has placed a wall of mirrors upstage, so that periodically, the audience can watch themselves viewing the piece. It’s a delicious illusion; who’s watching, who knows, who remembers this long-suppressed story.
Meanwhile, center stage is some marvelous acting. Monique Gaffney is our narrator and guide through the machinations of the decadent French court. She’s luminous as Louise Marie-Thérèse, the royal daughter who seals her life away when she marries God. Her white-gowned, ethereal presence is grounded by her gut-wrenching, roots-claiming African dance. Robin Christ is riveting as her mother, the Queen, a woman scorned and ridiculed, childlike but cunning, desperately trying to find a modicum of comfort and affection in a hostile, foreign environment. A beautifully bittersweet performance, even though the Spanish accent is a tad inconsistent and Christ is far too lovely to warrant the incessant epithets of “Plain” and “Ugly.”
Christopher Wylie looms large even as he makes himself small, magnificently inhabiting the wisely noble Nabo, who comes to an unfortunate end, a highly theatrical moment superbly created by Murray’s direction and Eric Lotze’s lighting. Jim Chovick and Judy Durning do double duty in dual roles. Durning’s wonderful as the world-weary but worldly-wise Queen Mother; severe, ruthless and self-serving as the Mother Superior. Jim Chovick is a delight as a gossipy painter and a fraudulent doctor. As the King, Daren Scott rises to greatness during the course of the evening (a bit foppish and fey in the first act, he’s splendidly majestic in the second). Amanda de Treville Sitton is a knife-edged beauty as La Valliere, one of the King’s mistresses, the one who finally reveals all to Louise.
Most of these actors haven’t worked with Murray before, but as he so often does, he’s amassed a magnificent ensemble. And he’s made a genuine discovery: first-time costumer Jose Maria Martinez Ybarra, a protégé of the gifted Jeanne Reith. She was busting her buttons at the opening, proud of his striking, opulent designs.
What a grand beginning to Cygnet’s second season. Long may the little swan soar!
YOU SAY YOU WANT A REVOLUTION …
Like “Las Meninas,” “Paris Commune” concerns a forgotten but significant corner of history, in this case, the populist uprising of 1871. But that’s about all I can say; critics are muzzled (I know some of you have prayed for that!) for all La Jolla Playhouse Page to Stage productions, which are works in progress. So you’ll just have to see for yourself…
LIKE WHITE ON RICE
Okay, so your friend pays a ridiculous amount of money for a painting that, as far as you can tell, is 4 feet by 4 feet of plain white canvas. Is that enough to ruin a friendship? According to French playwright Yasmina Reza, it is. Her 1995 play, “Art,“ won the Molière Award for Best Play when it opened in Paris. It’s been a huge success in 20 languages, so it obviously translates well, even though it seems quintessentially French.
In the 2001 production at the Old Globe, the piece was turned into a sitcom. But the Lamb’s Players, under the taut direction of Deborah Gilmour Smyth, have brought a decidedly American sensibility to the play, and returned it to the bitter comedy of ideas that it is. The three-way confrontation raises questions about art, friendship, loyalty and honesty. Equality in a relationship. How men negotiate the rocky terrain of the emotions. It’s nasty at times, even brutal, but also, when skillfully executed like this, fascinating and compelling.
There’s an alluring undertone to having three good friends play three good friends. Lamb’s artistic director Robert Smyth and long-time Lambies Paul Eggington and Tom Stephenson had the requisite bonding before they began working on this rapid-fire disquisition on taste and tolerance. They’ve nailed these characters: Smyth’s Marc, the aeronautical engineer, sports an insufferable cynical condescension and a grating horse-laugh; as the divorced, dermatologist/ art collector, Serge, Eggington is smug, brittle, aloof and accusatory. Stephenson’s Yvan is a put-upon pragmatist, a peacemaker who’s badgered by the women in his life and outclassed by his buddies. His mile-a-minute tirade of exasperation is both humorous and heartbreaking.
Mike Buckley has created a sleek, ultra-modern set that’s all high-tech angles, softened only by accent lighting (Bill E. Kickbush) and three white leather club chairs. There are a few critical moments when one actor stands in front of another, or when their backs are turned to the audience. But these language/behavior-nitpickers keep us fully engaged for 90 minutes, even if their arcane arguments may make you want to scream. These probably aren’t people you’d want for friends (let ’em have each other!), but they make for an entertaining and thought-provoking evening.
OLD KING COLE WAS A MERRY OLD SOUL
Offstage drama often provides for onstage inspiration. As the story goes, when Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were co-starring in “The Taming of the Shrew” in 1935, they quarreled almost as much as their characters. From this seed was sown the brilliant Cole Porter musical, “Kiss Me, Kate,” which premiered in New York in 1948 and became one of the decade’s, and the composer’s, biggest hits. Porter is at his absolute best here — glorious melodies and brilliantly witty lyrics — and, since he’s having a resurgence right now, what with Kevin Kline onscreen in “De-Lovely,” what better time is there to “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” and catch “Another Op’nin, Another Show?” Under the assured direction of Kathy Brombacher (with associate director Russell Garrett), Moonlight Stage Productions has mounted a sumptuous, dance-happy “Kate,” based on the recent Broadway revival that starred the charismatic, San Diego-sprung Brian Stokes Mitchell, who snagged a Tony for his dazzling performance.
The show (book by Sam and Bella Spewack) is set behind the scenes at Ford’s Theatre in Baltimore, during the tryout of a musical version of Shakespeare’s “Shrew.” The egotistical actor/director, Fred Graham (Stan Chandler) and his temperamental co-star and ex-wife, Lili Vanessi (Victoria Strong), repeatedly break up, make up and patch up their volatile relationship, eventually vowing enduring devotion, just like their fictional forebears, Petruchio and Kate. For both couples, it’s a bumpy road to paradise. Meanwhile, backstage in the subplot, sex kitten and wannabe actress Lois Lane (Brittany Page) and her hoofer-beau Bill Calhoun (Robert Marra) have their own problems; he with gambling, she with monogamy and fidelity, especially when expensive gifts are at stake. The interweaving of Porter and Shakespeare, in book and lyrics, is unalloyed genius.
The Moonlight production is lavish and lively, but it wasn’t quite ready on opening night; there were lighting and sound problems as well as multiple line-flubs, even in songs. The choreography (Russell Garrett) was inventive, but the dancing was inconsistent; the multi-talented Marra outshone everyone else onstage, some of whom just weren’t up to the task.
The show features fine performances, especially by Strong, Paige and Marra, as well as Steve Glaudini and David Beaver as the comic-duo gangsters and Robert May as an officious military-man. The singing is skillful, too; the large-scale chorus numbers sound great, and all four leads project robust and/or mellifluous vocal quality. Caleb Goh, recent graduate of the SDSU MFA program in musical theater, does a smoothly assured turn in “Too Darn Hot,” for which Garrett provides his best choreography. But Chandler went in and out for me; he didn’t quite command the stage, he lacked consistent charisma, his rich baritone weakened at the high end of his range, and his chemistry with Strong was … well, less than strong.
The 14-piece orchestra sounded bold and full-bodied under the baton and musical direction of Elan McMahan. It’s a lovely night of theater overall, even if I have a few quibbles, including the fact that some incomparably clever lyrics were jettisoned for extra dance-time. I was told it was in the interests of time, so the production didn’t exceed three hours (though it came close). Personally, I’d never lose a line of Porter; they just don’t write ’em like that any more. “Kiss Me, Kate” is one of the all-time great musicals — intelligent, romantic, and endlessly entertaining. It would serve as an excellent intro to Shakespeare, Porter, musicals and Moonlight.
FOLLOW YOUR BLITZ
The Fritz just celebrated its 13th Birthday, what you might call its Star Mitzvah. Now the cutting-edge company is mounting its 11thFritz Blitz of New Plays by California Playwrights. The Blitz got off to a spectacular start last weekend. If the other three weeks are anywhere near as good as the first, artistic director Duane Daniels should be doing the Happy Dance and reaping rewards. His intro to the opening evening was a hoot. A great night of humor, sharp direction and wonderful acting. Excellent quality throughout.
The Week #1 presentations began with “Absolutes,” by San Diego playwright Craig Abernethy, who wowed audiences last year with his ultra-clever wordplay in “State of the Art” (a Fritz Theatre production). This time out, he gives us a corporate couple, anonymously named One and Two, a mentor and mentee, both dressed in dark business suits, sporting the same red tie. The political resonances are unmistakable as the neophyte (the engaging Katie Harman) asks her stuffy and self-important superior (strait-laced and supercilious John Rosen), “Must we always be so sure?” He’s worried that she’s “going all Truth-Justice-and the American Way” on him. But, he asserts, “We have to be right because we know they are wrong.” We never quite know who the ‘We’ and ‘They’ are, but we don’t have to. The implications are clear enough. “We give the people what they want,” he patiently explains. “We are not for anything so much as against… We don’t fix anything; we create distractions.” And his bone-chilling corker: “The bigger the lie, the easier the sale.” Alas, the daily news bears him out. Deliciously subversive stuff, delectably directed by Daniels with witty, word-punctuating hand motions.
Next up was “Speed Dating 101” by L.A. writer Jeffrey Davis , a very funny take on the nanosecond dating/mating game. In this 8-minute round-robin social event, Aaron and Marti (the natural, comical duo of Jonathan Sachs and Teri Brown) cut right to the chase. They meet, greet, ask a few pertinent questions (“I’m normally not a self-revealer”), get acquainted, get engaged and break up, all in a matter of moments, before Round 6 is over. Pitch-perfect performances, perfectly paced, under the smart, snappy direction of (soon-to-be Mama!!) D. Candis Paule.
Another L.A. import, Pema Teeter, made her playwriting debut at the 8th Fritz Blitz in 2001 with “Easter’s Exile,” also expertly directed by Daniels. This year’s winning entry, “God Said Quiet,” also concerned matters of faith. Her first play focused on a preacher who questions his commitment. This time, it’s a young girl (bowed, sad-eyed Brielle Meskin) whose mother is dying and whose father has given up on her. She carries a Bible, she prays constantly, but “God,” she says, “told me to be quiet. He hushed me.” As the street-sweeping man in the park, who watches this daily despair and self-flagellation, Fred Harlow gave a lovely, subdued, sorrowful and finely etched performance.
The evening ended on an absurd note — in all the best senses. Tom Horan’s “Invisible Bob” is the wacky tale of long-term drones in a SuperMega Corporation who are so anonymous and unrecognized that Ed (side-splitting Jim Chatham) still can’t retire at 104; ‘they’ keep upping the age limit. Even worse, Bob (wide-eyed naïf, Michael Lamendola) is disappearing. Under Forrest Aylsworth’s endlessly inventive direction, all of the performances are wonderful, even if the characters are (stereo)Types. Teri Brown is highly effective again as the stodgy, stogy-smoking Mr. Boss; Erin McKown is great fun as old, tottering/doddering Nana, a perfect match for Chatham’s bent-over, shuffling, L-shaped geezer; Wendy Savage is perky as the insouciant ingénue, who helps rescue her boyfriend Bob from oblivion. Chrissy Burns does the Sexy Secretary turn as Miss Understanding; Bob Himlin is cutely clueless as the upwardly mobile Bill, who gets promoted to company hatchet-man but can’t get himself to utter the word ‘fired’ (though he can juggle). And Chris White is uproarious as the toenail-biting Dr. Bungle, a self-absorbed physician with the bedside manner of a boa constrictor. A weird little play (with about 10 endings), but the laughs kept coming, cause the cast was so good.
Onward and upward, Fritz-niks. Don’t miss the next three weeks.
MORE MUSICALS FROM MOVIES
More and more, movies are providing the source material for new musicals. Less good than books (or — heaven forbid! — novel ideas) but better than TV, I guess. Here’s the latest roundup:
Debuting this year:
“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (at the Globe), “Dracula, the Musical” (which premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse and is about to open on Bway), “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” and “The Color Purple.”
Also coming soon, or in discussion/development: “The Ten Commandments” (one could argue that there’s a pre-Hollywood source, but Heston looms large), “Tarzan” (based on the 1999 Disney animated version, featuring the music of Phil Collins), “Pink Floyd’s The Wall,” “Legally Blonde,” “Spider-Man,” “SecondHand Lions,” “Fight Club,” “High Fidelity” and (already running in London and due in NYC next spring) “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
Whew! Doesn’t anyone buy books any more??
AND NOW, FOR THE ‘DON’T MISS‘ LIST:
“Las Meninas” — Sean Murray does it again! Gorgeous production, wonderfully designed, acted and directed. A comic but chilling, fact-based, historical tale. At Cygnet Theatre, through September 12.
“Art” — a lovely pas de trois from some of your Lambie favorites, in an intelligent, thought-provoking play; at Lamb’s Players Theatre, through September 19
The Fritz Blitz — if it continues like the first week, this year’s Blitz could be the best ever! Three more weekends of amusement, talent and entertainment. At the Lyceum Theatre, through August 29.
“Kiss Me, Kate” — It isn’t quite “Wunderbar,” but it’s Porter, and Shakespeare, and Moonlight… a pretty hard combo to beat. In Vista’s Brengle Terrace Park, through August 15.
“Twelfth Night” — Poor Players’ bare-bones production makes light of the highs and underscores the lows — while highlighting the language at all costs. A delight! At Adams Ave Studio through 8/22.
Isn’t August 12th a holiday for everyone? — or is it just me, ’cause it’s my Birthday! Have one on me — a local show, that is.
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.