By Pat Launer
No one can be hyper-critical
When good plays become political
Lincolnesque is in D.C.
And Eyolf’s by a Norway sea.
While Five Cups is a different scene:
A fable of love laced with caffeine.
THE SHOW: LINCOLNESQUE, a world premiere by John Strand, who happens to live in the D.C. area; clearly, he knows the slime of which he speaks
THE STORY: Francis thinks he’s Abraham Lincoln. He dresses in a cutaway coat, and cuts a long, lean figure. He stands on pedestals and pontificates, reciting the greatest speeches of the Great Man. His brother Leo, always trying to protect him, has helped him get a job as a janitor, now that he’s out of the psychiatric hospital. But Francis just can’t help befriending folks, like a homeless guy he names his ‘Cabinet Secretary’ and in turn, the man, also spit back by the Beltway, happily calls him Mr. President. Leo’s got troubles of his own; he’s a speechwriter for a fairly lame Congressional candidate, who’s falling behind in the polls. So a new boss is brought in, a ball-busting woman who goes for Leo’s throat (and other parts). When they’re floundering and rudderless, they turn to Francis, who was once a brilliant Washington strategist, before he got eaten alive by the “cannibals” of the Capitol, and flipped out. Leo and Carla borrow a Lincolnesque phrase here and there. And their guy comes out sounding genuine, caring and concerned, not to mention spectacularly eloquent. The candidate wins, but all manner of havoc ensues, which makes us question who’s right, who’s a hero and where’s the line between fantasy and reality . It’s a well-written, surprising, suspenseful and intriguing play, which shines a bright but disquieting light on the destructiveness of present-day politics. And it’s getting a lovely production, under the assured direction of Joe Calarco, a playwright in his own right.
THE PLAYERS/PRODUCTION: T. Ryder Smith is a wonder as Francis; he’s truly Lincolnesque, tall and slender, slightly stooped, and positively beatific when he speaks some of those glorious words. Needless to say, politicians just don’t orate like that any more. And heaven knows , they rarely take the moral high ground. Leo Marks is wholly credible as Leo, a guy caught between expedience, the desire to be a winner, for once, and his responsibility for his brother. He’s the narrator, though we can’t always accurately view things – especially Francis – through his eyes. Magaly Colimon is bone-chilling as the tough-as-nails boss, Carla, and James Sutorius does excellent double-duty as the desperate, depressed and homeless ‘Secretary of War,’ and Daly, the ruthless, brutal Major Player in the political game. Michael Fagin’s scenic design is deliciously spare and suggestive: the American flag inlaid on a marble floor, parts of columns strewn about, and a ‘rotunda’ overhead. Projections of Lincoln quotes cover the theater walls. Very congressional, and beautifully lit by Chris Rynne. The sound design gets a tad too schmaltzy whenever the Lincoln words are uttered. But otherwise, this is a provocative and thought-provoking piece, absolutely worth seeing – and deeply examining. Could it all be a fantasy, or only certain parts? You be the judge.
THE LOCATION: The Old Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through September 10
THE SHOW: LITTLE EYOLF (1894), one of the late plays of Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), the Norwegian playwright considered to be the Father of Modern Drama. A notoriously difficult play to enact and to translate, this marks an ambitious and auspicious inaugural offering by the new Tonic Productions, founded by executive artistic director Amy Biedel (recently seen as a delightful Eliza in Cygnet’s My Fair Lady). The modern, lucid and thoroughly accessible translation (which underscores the lush, lyrical descriptions of the Norwegian lake, mountains and sky) is by Eric Samuelsen, head of the playwriting program at BYU, where Biedel obtained her Acting degree. The director, Dustin Condren, is also a BYU alum, an Ibsen scholar who’s currently working on his Ph.D. in Slavic Literature from Stanford University . The production commemorates the hundredth anniversary of Ibsen’s death.
THE BACKSTORY/THE STORY : The play was embraced almost unanimously by the Scandinavian critics, who dismissed many of Ibsen’s earlier works, primarily due to their opacity. Still, other Ibsen creations, like A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler, are far more frequently produced. What you see at first in this play is just the tip of the iceberg (or the fjord, which is where the action takes place). The still, surface calm of the Allmers’ relationship is soon revealed to be a toxic marriage. Rita is obsessive and viciously jealous, refusing to share Alfred with his work or even with their 9 year-old child, crippled when he took a fall during their negligent moment of passion. Alfred is adrift, unstable, entrapped. He married for money and a little lust. Now he’s an empty shell. But, having just returned from a replenishing retreat in the mountains, he decides to abandon his tome on human responsibility and instead to take some of his own – dedicating his life to his child. Rita will have none of it. In the nasty recriminations that course through the rest of the drama, especially following a tragedy involving Little Eyolf, the lid is blown off years of bottled-up emotions. Ugly truths — and the sham and devastation of this marriage – are revealed. So is an apparently unsavory attraction between Alfred and his financially dependent sister, Asta, whom Rita would also love to get rid of, hopefully sending her off with the grounded Roadmaker, Borghejm, the only emotionally sturdy and optimistic character in this tightly constricted world. In the midst of all the angst, there’s an eerie visit from the Rat Wife, a figure from Norwegian legend who, in a Pied Piper twist, entices more than rodents into the lake. Though promises are made in the final moments, this is hardly what one would call a happy ending. But the dark, intense psychological depth of the piece is still fresh and chilling (no wonder they called Ibsen the Freud of modern drama!).
THE PLAYERS/PRODUCTION : Condren has tacked on two opening gambits. First, he has Veronica Murphy come on dressed as a maid, dusting around and making the usual speeches about noisy snacks and electronic devices. Then she pulls back the curtain, an act which she reverses at the end, making the artifice obvious. We see (somewhat voyeuristically) a stylized, masked pantomime of seduction and rejection. When the masks are removed, we meet the Allmers, modestly but wealthily attired. John DeCarlo reveals the confusion, longing and despair beneath Alfred’s agitated exterior. Crystal Verdon’s Rita isn’t quite the harridan she’s written as, but the actor rises to the emotional climax, showing her fiery, controlling and seductive sides. In a house full of unsavory characters, she’s the least likable. Her third-act conversion to compassion is less than convincing (and that may be as intended). Austin Potts plays Little Eyolf as unnervingly unemotional, not very childlike at all. As Asta, Nicole Solas also stays on a single note; she generally looks annoyed or depressed, which makes it hard to get a handle on the various facets of her character, or her underlying, frequently ambivalent feelings. Tristan Poje is steady and stable as Borghejm, a man who, unlike Alfred, stands firmly on his own feet, and ever the builder, endeavors to construct a solid, positive relationship. As the Rat Wife, Murphy looks like a rag-draped street-person, but not a frightening temptress. She isn’t as sinister or unearthly as she should be. Still, overall, this is a potent production of a provocative play. It also marks a very promising beginning for a welcome new theater company.
THE LOCATION: 6th @ Penn Theatre, through September 10
NEXT UP for Tonic Productions – a benefit… a staged reading of Lanford Wilson’s 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winner, Talley’s Folley, starring Tonic founder Amy Biedel and David Ellenstein, artistic director of North Coast Repertory Theatre. Directed by the Old Globe’s Rick Seer. Whatta dynamic combo! 8pm — Sept. 11 at North Coast Rep and Sept. 12 at Cygnet Theatre ($10-12). 619-246-4854; firstname.lastname@example.org
THE SHOW: FIVE CUPS OF COFFEE, Gillette Elvgren’s world premiere comedy about “love, caffeine, and the space-time continuum”
THE STORY: Elvgren has a lot on his mind: physics, love, electrons, marriage, dysfunctional families (and, as he told me, the heinous aftermath of the freewheelin’ free love of the ‘60s). Geeky Hal Bjornson escapes from his own wedding and races, feet bleeding, into Milo ’s Gourmet Coffee Bar. Oddly, he’s never drunk the stuff in his life. Milo , a jovial, thoughtful, magical coffee-fanatic, happy to oblige, is inextricably connected to the “brown elixir,” and to everyone’s life. He carefully selects something apt and special for each cup he serves. Hal is supposed to drink five cups, marking five critical moments in his life, but we soon lose count and interest, despite the music that tells us ‘Pay attention! This is important!’ Even Milo nearly loses count. Hal is obsessed with Time, and ‘where it all started, when it all went wrong.’ He expounds endlessly on the structure of time, its elliptical nature, etc. etc. We get the point, and we get tired of his pronouncements and his flights of fancy (which include a trip to Iraq, the putative birthplace of Civilization, and his knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door, um, gate – which, according to the script, is supposed to look like Graceland, but doesn’t). Hal’s fiancée, Rita, is secure, committed and unstoppable; she’s gonna get her man, make him a father and keep him grounded. No small feat. Thankfully, most colorful of all, there are the parents. Hal’s father, Olaf, is a big, hulking sculptor/welder who, like his son, has his head in the clouds (or elsewhere) and tends to disappear for years at a time. His wife, Dorothy, is a smother-mother, a shrill nurse who gives orders to everyone. Rita’s parental units include Frank, a salty trucker who doesn’t take crap from anyone. And Gina, a sultry Hungarian with a sexy, no-nonsense mien. Over the course of the play, they come together, as do Milo and Rita, and they all come apart. There’s a birth, a stroke, a near-death, a lot of yelling and scrambling around. And a happy ending of sorts. And some magical semi-realism. It takes a lot of caffeine to make it through and make sense of it all.
THE PLAYERS/PRODUCTION: The players and production are ultimately more engaging than the play. Each of the actors finds some complexity in his/her character, even if there isn’t always much depth in the raw material. Linda Libby and K.B. Mercer are particularly delightful as the Moms, one a shrew, the other a temptress. David Heath is funny/goofy/hippy as Olaf and Doren Elias is loud and brusque as Frank. Heath’s daughter, Carrie Heath (I still remember her as a kid, 14 years ago, playing a dynamic little Scout to her Dad’s wonderfully upright Atticus in Lamb’s unforgettable production of To Kill a Mockingbird), makes Rita sensible and sane. And Jeffrey Jones, whose various accents come and go , has a field day with Milo . He seems truly joyful in the role, winking at the audience as he tells the tale and moves the action along. His most recent role, in the solo show, Atwater Fixin’ to Die at Cygnet Theatre, began his transition from darkly intense characters, and this production catapults him further into the realm of joyful comic exuberance. It’s a pleasure to watch. Time, the play concludes, is an illusion. But the long running time isn’t.
THE LOCATION: Lamb’s Players Theatre Theatre, through September 17
NEWS AND VIEWS
… Mark your calendar and get your tickets now. When the much-lauded, much-awarded John Patrick Shanley play, Doubt, comes to town this fall, not only will it star Tony Award-winner Cherry Jones (a stellar actor, and favorite of San Diego audiences), it’ll also feature Adriane Lenox, who won a 2005 Tony for her Broadway performance as the unpredictable mother in this thought-provoking play about old ways and new, guilt and innocence, accusations and recriminations – and ultimately, Doubt. For once (an unfortunately rare occasion) San Diego gets the same first-string cast as L.A. and San Francisco (we’re sandwiched between the two. The other cities get a month; we get six days. But still….). This is just the beginning of a 24-city tour, and we’re in on the ground floor. These performances are mesmerizing, and the play will have you talking for hours into the night. Oct. 31-Nov. 5 at the Civic Theatre. 619-570-1100; 619-220-TIXS; www.broadwaysd.com
… How about A Visit with Clarence Darrow? The eloquent, sophisticated country lawyer, defender of the poor and downtrodden, was a social force in America , defending many notable cases and causes. Best known for the Scopes Monkey Trial and the Leopold and Loeb case, he is one of the legal luminaries of our nation. Local actor Joe Nesnow has been inhabiting the acclaimed attorney for 20 years, in this one-man play by David W. Rintels. Now he’s taking his act to 6th @ Penn, where he’ll play indefinitely, every Saturday afternoon, starting this weekend, Aug. 26. So bring a friend, take a kid; spend some time with history and greatness.
… Exodus? Sure feels like it. San Diego theater is oozing talent and brain-trust. First it was director/Sledgewoman Kirsten Brandt (who moved to NoCal), then actor/director George Flint (ensconced in Chicago ), and now…. exciting local actors David McBean (Fully Committed), Laura Bozanich (All in the Timing), and Kristen Mengelkoch (Forbidden Broadway). Are all headed for the Big Apple. And the most surprising news of the week… Eveoke Dance Theatre’s founder/artistic director, consummate choreographer Gina Angelique, is leaving, too. She and husband/producer/lighting designer Chris Hall, and their two kidlets, Shealyn and Isadora, are moving to northern California in June ’07, so they can, as Chris puts it, “live sustainably, close to the earth… We look forward to creating a retreat for dance and new art works in a natural setting that provides grounded reflection, time and inspiration.” Guess they couldn’t find that here. How sad. Gina will leave a gaping hole in the dance/theater community; I’ve always described her as ‘a force of nature,’ the prototype of effectively using arts to inspire social activism. Company co-founder Nikki Dunnan will be the new Executive Director; Erika Malone will serve as Education Director. Co-founder Mary Lou Lo Preste (Gina’s mother) will remain “our greatest advocate and community supporter in perpetuity.” As Chris so aptly put it, “There will never be another Gina.”
…The Blitz is on! Starting Aug. 24 and running through Sept. 17…the 13th annual Fritz Blitz of New Plays by California Writers — four weeks, eight plays, and a bevy of talented actors and directors. In the Lyceum Space.
…Last chance for Poor Players’ production of The Tempest, through Aug. 27 at New World Stage downtown, on 9th Avenue . Nick Kennedy directs. www.poorplayers.com
…Mahalo from Mo’olelo… San Diego Magazine’s readers and editors recently named Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company, the group founded by the indomitable Seema Sueko, the “Best New Theater Company” in town. Congrats!
… Grinchy News…With the Globe’s production of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! – The Musical opening on Broadway this fall, the local production will be tweaked a bit, too. Well, all this is off the record, but here’s what I know (unofficial at presstime). For the first time in eight years, there’ll be a San Diegan playing Young Max the Dog. Adorable Rusty Ross has portrayed the frisky pup since the beginning, and he’ll be doing the honors in New York . That left the door wide open for talented funnyman Ryan Drummond, who understudied last year, went on once, and impressed the powers-that-be enough to land the role (probably, unofficially, no one’s confirming, but I think it’s a go). Ryan anticipates “lots of Milkbones” in his holiday stocking.
The Grinch, created, conceived and directed by Tony Award-winner Jack O’Brien (who will supervise the NY production), will be directed on Broadway by Matt August. Right now, and this is common knowledge, the creative team is on the lookout for Whos — talented kids age 8 to 14 who are five feet tall or less. Hurry up; the tape submission deadline is August 30. Finalists will appear on ‘The Today Show’ on September 7, and a winner will be chosen on the air. The musical, with book and lyrics by Timothy Mason and music by Mel Marvin, includes two tunes from the beloved 1966 animated “Grinch” film: “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Welcome Christmas.” New York previews begin Oct. 25, with the opening scheduled for Nov. 8; the limited engagement runs through Jan. 7, 2007 – a whopping twelve performances a week. Bring on the Understudies!
…Do the Write thing… A Playwriting Workshop is being organized by Diversionary Theatre. The primary focus will be on LGBT lives and stories, but all writers are welcome. Instructor Patricia Loughrey is an award-winning playwright who currently teaches at SDSU. Tuesday nights, 6:30-8:30pm, Sept. 5 – Nov. 14. Readings of participants’ work on Nov. 28. A 1-2 page writing sample is required for acceptance. For info: 619-286-7232; submit sample to email@example.com.
…THEATER FOR SALE … the former Manhattan Theatre in Lakeside , a neat little space that would greatly benefit from continuation and a little TLC. If you have any interest, or know someone who would, contact Betty McMillen 619-443-1133. Preserve history – and theater!
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Critic’s Picks)
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Lincolnesque – provocative, political and sure to get you thinking; excellently performed
On the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through September 10
Little Eyolf – a lesser-known play by Ibsen, with dark underpinnings and some highly emotional moments; an auspicious beginning for the new Tonic Productions
At 6th @ Penn, through September 10
all wear bowlers – if you love physical comedy and new vaudeville clowning, you’ll adore these two talented wackos
La Jolla Playhouse, through September 3
Titus Andronicus – a lot of political references and many laughs along with the gore; as director Darko Tresnjak puts it, his production is “bloody good fun!” It’s terrific and inventive
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through September 30
Othello – potent production. robustly acted and directed
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through October 1
August is almost over; catch the last light of summer… at the theater.
© 2006 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.