By Pat Launer
There’s romance afoot for youth and age,
Onstage, they tweak it, ham it or mike it.
Love, this month, is all the rage:
In The Gin Game, Radio Days and As You Like It.
The Forest of Arden is less than idyllic. Same could be said of life at court. In the UCSD production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” the forest is a stand of trees and a tangle of vines — pretty barren, a bit desolate. Duke Frederick’s court is a cold, forbidding place, too. Director Larissa Kokernot (a third year MFA candidate who’s mined the comic vein in the last two Baldwin New Play Festivals at UCSD), said she wanted to focus on the “dark underbelly” of this comedy, digging deep within the “field of gender and the landscape of desire.” Although the production isn’t quite as dark as perhaps she might have intended, it’s often stunning and provocative. The director has succeeded in balancing the comic and shadowy sides of the play, a Pastoral comedy that isn’t all sweetness and light, which boasts a philosophical fool, a melancholy ruminator and four couples who must take real and metaphysical journeys before they can achieve acceptance, reconciliation and love.
The set, designed by the ever-inventive Melpomene Katakalos (also a third year MFA student), is striking if at times harrowing. The slippery sheet covering the center-stage mound in the first act provided several moments of audience terror as actors slid across its sleek, unstable surface. At the top of the second act, the sheet is pulled dramatically away, to reveal a beautiful mosaic (vines and colors by projection).
The play opens in a web of shadow and light (excellent lighting design by Sarah EC Maines, another 3rd year MFA). The dramatis personae glide past in glorious permutations of black and white (magnificent costumes by Paloma Young, a 2nd year student, whose only misstep is the high-end, unsullied dress-clothes worn by the former courtiers who look as much like they’ve been living in the forest as Ralph Lauren does).
We first meet the old servant Adam with an apple in hand (a little Biblical humor?) accompanied by his hard-working, soon-to-be young master, Orlando. Andrew Smith is delicious as the soon-to-be lovestruck youth. His performance is natural, unforced and riveting; this Orlando is innocent and irresistible. As the object of his desire, Rosalind, Lisa Velten is tall, blonde, lovely, adolescently hyper-emotional. Though she doesn’t lose these characteristics when she goes undercover as a young man, Ganymede, she becomes forceful and generally convincing as a lovesick youth who swoons as she trains the object of her affection ( Orlando ) in the ways of love. Stan Hollingworth has a stilted, cloying manner of speech as Adam, but he’s much more credible and compelling with the Epilogue. Colette Veauvais is charming as Celia, best friend to Rosalind, and Brian Slaten is delightful as the clown, Touchstone. Ryan McCarthy is less dark and deep than some who play the glum Jacques, but there’s an endearing quality about his academically dour resistance to joy. Owiso Odera is more engaging, displaying a greater emotional range, as the ‘good Duke’ in the Forest than the ‘nasty Duke’ in the court. Rebecca Kaasa and Genevieve Hardison are adorable as the country girl and shepherdess. The vagaries of romantic attraction, including same-sex attractions, are well conveyed, and there are many enchanting moments in this production. Perhaps an unfair comparison, but I can’t wait to see how it stacks up against the highly lauded creation directed by Sir Peter Hall, which I’ll be seeing this weekend in LA. To be honest, the array of talent in the often magical UCSD production is bittersweet; many of these gifted artists will be graduating and moving on in a few months. So catch them now, while you still can.
In the Mandell Weiss Forum, on the campus of UCSD, though February 12
Not a bad freshman effort. Texas-based D.L. Coburn wrote his first play, “The Gin Game,” in 1977, when he was just shy of 40. It’s a terrifically funny-sad portrait of the agonies of aging and nursing homes, made more poignant to a wider audience year by year, as the Baby Boomers come into their dotage. On Broadway, where it starred Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, the play garnered four Tony nominations and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Beginner’s luck?? Maybe. Coburn wrote subsequent plays, as well as TV pilots and screenplays, but none toured the world or created such heartbreaking, infuriating and unforgettable characters.
The conceit is a game of cards… many games, to be precise, each one stripping away another layer of control and artifice to reveal the raw insides of these two self-deluded seniors whose lives have slid from dreary to dreadful. Over the course of the evening, the prim Fonsia and the irascible Weller go downhill from civility to harsh explosions of emotion.
All the action takes place on the patio of the Bentley Retirement Home. These two castoffs come together on Visiting Day, when no one comes to see either of them. They have families, children, but no friends. And after awhile, we see why they’ve been rejected by loved ones and life.
The play may sound depressing, but it’s frequently very funny. Yet we certainly come away with a sadness about how we can all wind up, if we’re not careful. Or even if we are.
When director Randall Hickman scheduled auditions, he worried about getting a good enough turnout to find a convincing cast. He was overwhelmed by the response (there are, after all, so few juicy roles for older actors) that he chose four people and alternate casts. We saw Cast B (the Saturday matinee/evening performers); Monica Wyatt and Michael Thomas Tower are featured in Cast A.
Edwin Eigner and Corinne Williams do an outstanding job in this brutal look at the isolation, loneliness and loss of old age, which unblinkingly confronts society’s rejection and mistreatment of the elderly, not to mention the need to face facts and take responsibility for one’s own life and how it plays out. Eigner portrays anger and impatience especially well (though the shocking physical confrontation with Fonsia falls flat; these two need to get more aggressive!). He could use a few more shades of emotional color, but I was there on opening night, and he’ll most likely settle into the role and mine its riches over time. Williams flaunts her serene, ladylike, modest-Methodist decorum until late in the game, when she finally begins to show her cards (metaphorically speaking), revealing “skim mild masquerading as cream.” It’s never quite clear how much her incredible winning streak, which renders her partner apoplectic (he constantly bemoans a lifetime of “bad luck”) is really steely, poker-faced strategy. But she carries the audience along with her triumphs until we see inside – and then we don’t like what we see. Even so, it’s disturbing that Fonsia keeps coming back to Weller, since he’s so abusive. But desperation and desolation produce strange bedfellows (metaphorically speaking).
The shabby set, designed and constructed by Premiere co-founder Douglas Davis, is as neglected as the retirement home’s residents. Everything is tattered, worn, threadbare, broken. Given all the despair displayed (however laced with humor it may be), you’d think that older folks would, as Kenny Rogers always told us, “know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.” But that’s not how it goes at all. These people, like many their age, still crave and cry out for “More life, more dreams, more agony!”
At the new BroadwayTheatre in Vista , through February 27.
If you’re an Old Fashioned Guy or Girl, and you think you might enjoy a theatrical entertainment that makes “Forever Plaid” look hip and edgy, then rush right out to see “Radio Gals” at Moonlight Stage Productions. WGAL is on the air, in this hokey musical set in the late 1920s, during the early days of radio. Written by Mike Craver and Mark Hardwick, the show concerns an enterprising older woman, Hazel Hunt of Cedar Ridge , Arkansas , who retires as the small town’s music teacher and gets a gift of a Western Electric 500 watt radio transmitter. Naturally, she begins broadcasting immediately, chronicling the everyday lives and events of her tiny town. Her news and musings are interspersed with music galore, sung by her beloved Hazelnuts, her all-girl band and backup. Since the radio reception varies, Hazel is given to illegal “channel wandering” (and moonshining), which prompts the unwelcome visit from a Federal Radio Inspector. As one would predict in this sort of circumstance, he winds up falling for one of the ‘nuts and staying on with the group. Uh-huh. The one who snags him (and nearly rides off into the sunset with him, on the back of his motorcycle), is the man-hungry flapper/poet/psychic, Gladys Fritts.
It’s all too silly and goofy for words, which makes us grateful that the show’s mostly sung. But the songs, though they smack strongly of the period, feel stale and corny and sport seriously soppy or soporific lyrics. Yes, it was a more innocent time. Yes, women could (can?) persuade a man of anything. But the nostalgic Americana , unflagging exuberance and down-home homilies and humor just didn’t do a thing for me. Housed as it is in an old movie theater (Vista’s Avo), it felt more like a high school auditorium – except for the level of talent. The singing is superb, the music rousing and spirited (musical direction by Don LeMaster, who expertly tickles the ivories, while Daniel Doerfler does percussion to perfection – both, of course, in drag). Several of the cast play other instruments, with more or less skill – from Doerfler on bass to John Nettles on accordion to Bettina “Pixie” Warren gamely honking away on sax and clarinet. And there are whistles, noisemakers and kazoos up the wazoo. The most interesting part of the show is that it was inspired by a real incident, experienced by a far more fascinating character than any on this stage.
Evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944), who ran a radio station out of her Temple in Los Angeles , was prone to “wavejumping” in search of a clear channel. Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce, sent an inspector out to close down the station. Rumor had it that the highly dramatic, flirtatious McPherson ran off with the inspector, and they eloped on his motorcycle. Really, isn’t that a much more exciting narrative? Oh well, even as we speak, Kathie Lee Gifford is writing a musical about McPherson, so maybe the original story will make it onstage after all.
Meanwhile, up at Moonlight, Don and Bonnie Ward have chosen an attractive and ebullient cast with excellent voices and spirit to spare. The director/choreographers are hampered in the latter role, since the wonderfully detailed country-parlor set (designed by Mike Buckley) is so chock-full and cluttered that there’s precious little room for dancing. But the Andrews Sisters sound is great, as Hazel (Dagmar Fields) and her Hazelnuts — Pixie Warren, Marci Anne Wuebben and Gail Wolford-Beall — sing their hearts out, in numbers that range from African to Hawaiian. It’s fun when Nettles and the band join in (LeMaster even gets a few solos), even if there isn’t a shred of credibility to most of the proceedings. Nettles has at least something of a character to play, as do Fields and Wolford-Beall. But the others are just ciphers, or just there to round out the vocal requirements. Or else, the actors and directors just didn’t dig deeply enough to find sufficient stage-business and personality to distinguish one from the other. Okay, maybe I sound like a grinch; the white-haired matinee audience seemed to love every minute of it. You may, too.
At Moonlight Stage Productions’ Avo Playhouse in Vista, through February 20.
A LEGEND DIES… BUT WE’VE STILL GOT THE RUBY
Timing is everything. And though he obviously didn’t plan it, it was perfectly congruous that the ground-breaking entertainer, Ossie Davis, died at the beginning of Black History Month. Over the course of a 50 year career, the actor forged paths for other African American performers. He often appeared with his wife of 57 years, Ruby Dee (they shared 11 stage productions and five movies). She was in New Zealand making a movie at the time of his death in a Miami hotel. In December, when the couple received the Kennedy Center Honors, he looked healthier than she, and more with-it on the TV broadcast. But last Friday, at age 87, he succumbed (cause of death undisclosed, but he had a history of heart problems and a recent bout of pneumonia). The couple may have been known for their joint roles in “Roots: The Next Generation” on TV (1978), or the Spike Lee films “Do the Right Thing” and “Jungle Fever,” but they got their start onstage together in “Jeb” and “Anna Lucasta” (1946-7) and in 1959, in “A Raisin in the Sun,” when Davis took over for Sidney Poitier and Dee played his wife. He recreated his delightful stage performance in the film “I’m Not Rappaport” and in the late 1990s, appeared on TV in “Miss Evers’ Boys” and “Twelve Angry Men.” Most of these productions made a statement about race.
On the broader, national stage, the duo helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, and served as its MCs. Davis was a friend of the 20th century’s most notable African Americans: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson and Harry Belafonte. The story of how he got his name was a classic in black and white. He was born Raiford Chatman Davis, but when his mother articulated his name to the white Georgia filing clerk, she said “R.C. Davis,” and he thought she said “Ossie Davis,” so that’s what went on his birth certificate. A graduate of Howard University, Davis originally wanted to be a writer; his best-known work is “Purlie Victorious,” which confronted racism and integration head-on, as he did in his life. In 1970, the play was made into a hit musical, “Purlie,” which will be briefly reprised in a concert version this spring at New York’s City Center. On February 4, the day of his death, Broadway theaters dimmed their lights before the curtain rose.
NOW, FOR THIS WEEK’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED‘ LIST:
“As You Like It” –- beautiful production, excellently designed, directed and acted. UCSD at the Mandell Weiss Forum through February 12.
“The Gin Game” – alternating casts in this taut, touching, funny, often brutal and unblinking look at old age. Cast B is wonderful; I haven’t seen Cast A. But this is a show (perhaps even a cautionary tale) for everyone, of any age.
At the Broadway Theatre in Vista, through February 27.
“Of Mice and Men” – Renaissance Theatre’s searing production of the John Steinbeck classic. Marvelously acted, directed and designed. At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through February 12.
“Burn This” – highly combustible theater. An offbeat love story that seethes at Cygnet Theatre; through February 13.
“Take Me Out” – funny, thought-provoking play about the coming-out of a sports superstar… Baseball, comedy, drama — and a big Bonus! — all those naked men!
At the Old Globe Theatre, EXTENDED through February 27.
“Wrinkles” – three generations of high-powered, hard-nosed Southern women reveal secrets they didn’t know they shared. Outstanding performances. At Diversionary Theatre, through February 19.
Do something loving this V-D week – go to the theater!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.