By Pat Launer
Science and politics; it’s all the rage
On more than one San Diego stage.
Air-pumps, sound-machines, introspections,
Fictitious gubernatorial elections.
Provocative theater to promote:
The mindless-summer-movie antidote!
While Broadway musicals are taking their cues from the movies, thoughtful playwrights have been looking at visual art. And San Diego theaters are right there with them.
At the UCSD Baldwin New Play Festival this past spring, the most provocative and stirring play, “The Hopper Collection,” created a backstory for an Edward Hopper painting. In July, Lambs Players Theatre mounts Yazmina Reza’s fictional work of “Art.” In August, Cygnet Theatre opens Lynn Nottage’s “Las Meninas,” a historical fantasy that takes its name, and some of its storyline, from a 1656 painting by Velazquez. And now, along comes Backyard Productions, ever anxious to get a jump on hot new plays, with “An Experiment with an Airpump,” the title of a 1768 English painting by Joseph Wright of Derby.
Written by Northumberland native Shelagh Stephenson, the play was joint winner of England’s Peggy Ramsay Award in 1997, and in its American debut (Manhattan Theatre Club, 2000), it garnered Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award nominations. It should’ve won.
This is an astonishing, intelligent, invigorating, thought-provoking play. Set simultaneously on the cusp of two centuries, the 18th and the 20,th it’s an obvious homage to Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia.” (in the play-within-a-play, there’s even a character called ‘Arcadia’). Like that outstanding piece of theater, and the painting that inspired it, “Airpump” has to do with scientific discovery. The painter captured a scene, gorgeously reproduced onstage, demonstrating that life cannot exist in a vacuum and that science without humanity can result in death. The painting shows a white bird gasping for breath in an evacuated glass jar as the experimenter and his family — in varying degrees of disbelief and shock — look on. It was viewed as a commentary on the scientific Enlightenment on the brink of the Industrial Revolution.
The modern counterpart, incredibly up-to-the-minute (even if it was set in 1999) is genetic research, and the use of fetal cells in particular. The play deals with scientific ethics and morality, and rationalism vs. passion.
We first meet Ellen, a genetic researcher, who confronts the Wright painting and confesses, “When I was 13, other girls wanted to marry Mick Jagger. I wanted to be God.” And then we watch as she metamorphoses before our eyes, into Susanna Fenwick, wife of a distinguished physician living in the same Newcastle House 200 years earlier. Her husband is passionate about progress, which makes him sympathetic to the political change and turmoil brought on by industrialization. But he is somewhat less compassionate to his own wife and daughters. Each character here is a philosophical antithesis of the one in the alternate century/reality.
So Ellen (the marvelous Robin Christ) is a rational scientist with a moral dilemma: whether or not to take a new job in pre-embryonic genetic research. But as 18th-century Susannah, she’s often-inebriated, over-emotional, under-educated, and roundly ignored by her celebrated husband. Susannah’s older daughter, Harriet (Allison Riley) is a strong-willed, excitable girl who’s been told she’s a poet but would prefer to turn her passion to medicine; she wants to be a player, not just an observer. Her complacently romantic younger sister Maria (ditsily played by Lauren Zimmerman) is rescued from following directly in her mother’s frustrated footsteps when her eyes are opened (literally and figuratively) to the fickleness of her fiancé, who’s away in India, and can’t seem to recall her eye-color. Two hundred years hence, Kate (Riley again, more centered) is a single- and narrow-minded scientist who has no time for humanism or humanity. Then there’s the hump-backed Scottish maid, Isobel (magnificently, heart-breakingly played by the luminous Jessica John), who’s more literate and intelligent than most of her female superiors, but because of birth status and appearance, is relegated to third-class citizenry — and a lot more. This pretty much represents the full spectrum of female roles across the centuries.
On the male side, there are equivalent dichotomies. In 1799, we have expansive Dr. Fenwick the experimenter, and (also played by the low-key but mesmerizing Ron Choularton) in 1999, Ellen’s depressed and unassuming husband, Tom, an unemployed academic who questions the ethics of her prospective job. Fenwick’s frequent visitors (presumably part of the famous Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society) are the list-maker (and future father of the thesaurus) Peter Mark Roget (frazzled, fidgety but endearing Daren Scott), who clearly sees the humanity in science; and Thomas Armstrong (a too sleazy-too early Joshua Everett Johnson), whose scientific inquiry knows no bounds or human-kindness. He’s in with the grave-robbers of old (and would be with the university corpse-sellers of today). In modern times, Johnson is terrific as the woo-woo, spiritual blue-collar questioner who nails the concerns and engages the heart of Ellen’s more erudite husband.
A lovely mess of characters in a glorious game of century-swapping. And besides all the rich philosophical musings, there’s an intriguing mystery, about a box of bones found in the old house that Ellen and Tom are about to sell, only to have it turned into a Disneyesque historical playground. It’s yummy stuff, maybe not as poetic, witty or deeply complex as “Arcadia,” but easily as provocative and a lot more accessible. And it has significantly more heart.
The production overall is spectacular, under the excellent directorial hand of Robert May. The performances are first-rate. The set (Jessica John & Emily Dolton) and costume (Gillian East Zink) designs make the time-traveling transitions magically, and the lighting (Ginger Harris), despite minimal equipment in the Adams Avenue Studio space, is beautifully evocative, especially in the candle-lit early scenes.
This show is absolutely not to be missed. What’s not to like? It’s all about head versus heart, art versus science, past versus present, love versus marriage, the role of women — and language — and the transience or persistence of fame and infamy. Scrumptious theater fare.
THE GREAT DIVIDE
Maybe you need to have been a political child of the ’60s — like David Edgar and Tony Taccone and me — to really appreciate “Continental Divide.” Now that I’ve seen both plays at the La Jolla Playhouse, my opinions have altered. It’s not that, in retrospect, I necessarily like “Mothers Against” more, but the insights gleaned there broadened and deepened the experience of “Daughters of the Revolution.” What I came to realize is that the plays aren’t really about the Democratic and Republican sides of a fictitious gubernatorial election, though they are peripherally that. But they’re really about values and beliefs and political convictions, and how you hold onto them over time, as you age and grow more successful and a lot more jaded. The plays also consider the notion of utopias, how each side saw them, and how they continue to proliferate — in the tree-huggers of the Northwest as well as the flourishing militias. And profoundly, if you don’t believe in Angels or America (which is what two characters in the plays claim to cling to) how do you go on? Even if you know there aren’t Angels, the black radical, Kwesi Ntuli, tells us, “we’re better people if we believe there are.”
I think it’s easy to get buried in all the talk of these wordy, idea-drenched plays. They were created this way because Edgar received commissions from two different theaters at about the same time: the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. And since he’d been doing years of research on the American political system, he figured this would be a great way to cover all his material and fulfill both commissions. I’m not sure the plan worked as well as he’d hoped. Both plays would benefit from serious scaling down and, in fact, I think the whole would be stronger if he conflated the two.
The first act of “Mothers” is background and exposition; it’s too talky and often didactic. The second act is the juicy part, though there’s no real arc to the piece overall. This is the prep for the TV debate, and it also reveals the familial politics that’s getting in the way of the Republican candidate’s campaign — conflicts with his brother; a hard-line campaign manager who wants him to compromise any and all values in order to win; a daughter who’s an environmental radical — and possibly connected to the recent killing of a young female protestor of genetic modification of food. All those sub-stories make return visits in “Daughters,“ which I found to be a much more energized and engaging play, even if it’s all over the map. There are so many interrelationships among the characters in the two plays, it’s head-spinning. They’ve slept with each other, switched parties, been roommates and twins and co-conspirators. Betrayal is everywhere in the air.
Unlike the slow-starting, sometimes soporific “Mothers,” “Daughters” is high-stakes and high energy from the get-go. The first act begins with a bouncy surprise birthday party; the second act opens breathtakingly, with several actors rappelling down giant redwoods.
The action is set in motion when, for his 55th birthday, Michael’s mate has secured his FBI file, just as a goof. His friends, all Hippily dressed in ’60s regalia, put on a skit, enacting and recounting his various revolutionary activities. Michael is not amused. A) He’s about to leave his college Dean position to run a State commission, and the revelations about his past may not be felicitous. And B) the document reveals that someone ratted on him, one of eight confreres who were at a radical planning meeting in 1972. That “snitch,” he says, indirectly wrecked his marriage and his relationship with his son, since he was denied tenure and his life pretty much fell apart.
The rest of the play becomes a mini-mystery, as Michael seeks out each of the other seven former militants, all of whom are linked in some way to the campaign and its various issues, which include a Proposition requiring a loyalty oath of all new or re-registering voters. And there’s that questionable killing of the “eco-terrorist.” And the two fugitives who were at the meeting, one of whom was Mike’s hero. And there’s the twin of the Republican candidate’s policy advisor who’s now a community activist with an African name (golden-voiced Derrick Lee Weeden plays both twins, the activist much more convincingly — he’s also a more interesting character). Most of the performers shine brighter in “Daughters,” though it’s fun to see them playing the various roles on different sides of the political aisle.
The design elements work best in “Daughters,” too. The projection screens are used to excellent effect. Those redwoods are fantastic, and the eight other settings look great. Bill Geisslinger is engaging and likable as the Republican candidate Sheldon Vine, and appealing as several other characters. As the candidate’s wife and as the fugitive, Ash, Robyn Rodriguez is powerful and credible (though the mother-daughter presence in the woods strains credulity). As the tree-hugger Dem-daughter, Christine Williams fares far better in the forest (“Daughters”) than in the living room (“Mothers”). Michael Elich is excellent as the gay ex-activist, Troy, and the Republican campaign manager, Don. Lynnda Ferguson makes the Democratic candidate, Rebecca McKeene, a bit too brittle and bitchy. That toughness hasn’t endeared her to us. Geisslinger’s nice-guy image helped me understand why, when the Berkeley audience was asked to vote after seeing both plays (a great idea; I wish the Playhouse had done it here), surprisingly (for Berkeley!), they chose the Republican. He stuck to his values.
Ultimately, what Mike’s search becomes in “Daughters” is less about personal betrayal than “why we betrayed ourselves.” Many of these characters have sort of lost their way — and lost their belief in the American Way. “Somewhere,” Mike says, “there is a frontier to the future.” No one here, except the real hard-core politicos (e.g., the Republican campaign manager) is too happy with the current state of the Union. Everyone has had to compromise more than they’d expected. Anyone who lived through those times can relate.
If you pay attention, if you bother to care, Edgar’s arguments go right to the gut. Problem is, you have to cut through so much fat and gristle, you may be exhausted once you get to the meat of the matter. As flakily delightful as they are, the tree-huggers are with us for too long. The inter-play interrelationships become too intricate and complicated. But the issues are huge and important; that’s the kind of playwright Edgar is. These two plays surely aren’t just about the ugly, slimy underbelly of American politics, though of course, that’s here, too. But what Edgar is driving at, if he could present it a bit more briefly and directly, is taking responsibility for our acts, the cost of righting wrongs, risking being a loser in order to be a leader, examining whom we call heroes or heretics. If you’ve taken the time to sit through two plays (and I recommend “Mothers” first) and you’ve listened to what’s being said, you’ll be provoked in the way that theater does best. You’ll be forced to examine your own life.
A radio play in the flesh. That’s the subtitle of “Kid-Simple,” now having its West coast premiere at Sledgehammer Theatre. It’s a perfect Sledge-play, a feast for the eye and the ear — and the actor. The playwright, 23 year-old Jordan Harrison, has been influenced by Mac Wellman, a long-time favorite of Sledge, especially when it was under the direction of co-founder Scott Feldsher.
Well, Scott’s back, and “Kid-Simple” is as aurally thrilling as anything he’s done. In “Kid-Simple,” opposites collide and commingle. It’s the story of Moll, a teenage girl with a wicked temper and a genius for invention, played by spunky, charismatic, athletic Jeannine Marquie (who’s over-miked screams become unintelligible at times). Moll constructs a device called the Third Ear, a machine for hearing sounds that cannot be heard — toenails growing on a field mouse, dust settling, the beat of another person’s heart. The device can extract sound from inanimate objects: put a stethoscope to a chalkboard and you’ll hear the words of those who have written upon it. Moll wins the science fair and her doltish parents are duly proud.
But despite her extreme intelligence, Moll makes the mistake of falling for a greaseball named Garth, who seduces her and steals her invention “for nefarious purposes.” This Mercenary shape-shifter, played with hilarious, sexually-charged sleaze by the delightful David McBean, is willing to do whatever it takes, turn into whatever is necessary — from sexy satyr to erotic fig tree — to profit from Moll’s intellect and invention. He’s not bothered by consequences or ethics, even if it means taking advantage of a virgin, Oliver (played with hunky ingenuousness by Joel Rieck).
The main plot involves Moll’s determination, as she’s carried by Oliver over hill and vale, across river, through thicket and chasm, to rescue her machine (to save the world from losing sound as we know it) and to avenge her broken heart. But a subplot centering around a melodramatic radio play (enacted uproariously by Brian Salmon in multiple roles and accents, with Kati Behumi) eventually intersects with Moll’s story. As the play moves toward its conclusion, Moll’s trek becomes a tad redundant and wearisome.
But then there are the sounds and their descriptions — humorously read by an ever-unraveling Kim Strassburger, who fears that the play is veering out of control (we sometimes share that fear) and that the Third Ear will suck up all the sounds and words in the world; then where would she be? All the sounds are made visual by projections, made verbal by description and made audible by an outstanding sound design — by Paul Peterson and the onstage sound-making wizard, Scott Paulson.
In this fantastical, absurd fable of science and whimsy, there is a journey, a quest. There are considerations of thinking and thought and narrative and invention. Being true to one’s self. Sound, Harrison is saying; it can electrify the imagination — just the way radio plays used to do in every household every day. But there’s also a warning here — that obsessions can become dangerous if too much of one’s self is invested in them. [In order to make the machine functional, Moll has to donate her stapes and part of her larynx, the latter which makes an unsavory appearance onstage]. Noise, we’re being told (quite loudly) is beautiful. It takes sound to make us appreciate silence (and when we get some of that — especially on a Sledgehammer stage– it’s downright spooky).
The production, under Feldsher’s direction, is certainly eye- and ear-popping. It’s extremely imaginative and inventive. It’s well acted and often very funny (McBean and Salmon are especially comically adept). It sometimes feels like a long 90 minutes, but it’s well worth seeing and hearing. Remember, noise encourages us to value silence — and only then can we hear the sound of a beating heart.
GO BACK TO YOUR WIFE
If you’re still lamenting that you never got to see Jefferson Mays do his brilliant work in the Tony and Pulitzer-winning “I Am My Own Wife” at the La Jolla Playhouse, help is on the way. He’ll be reprising the role on the West coast, under the direction of Moisés Kaufman again. Yippee! And it’s definitely worth the ride to L.A. Mark your calendar now: June 14-July 22, 2005, at the Geffen Playhouse’s new location at the Brentwood Theatre (an interim venue for 15 months of renovation and expansion at the Geffen’s home base in Westwood).
And keep your car gassed up in Fall ’05. “Avenue Q” is coming to Las Vegas. Instead of going on the road, the irresistible, X-rated, puppet-fueled, Tony Award-winning Best Musical about twirty-somethings coming of age (and about all of us at any age) will be housed by Vegas hotshot Steve Winn in a new theater he’s building just for the show. So, you can go to New York/New York without going to New York. Kewl.
In the Revelry Department, last week marked my 50th column for sdtheatrescene. Woohoo! And, coincidentally, I received an award for my column from the Society for Professional Journalists. Rock on, theater fans!
And now, for THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“An Experiment with an Airpump” — wonderfully intelligent, provocative play, excellently acted and directed. Absolutely not to be missed. At Adams Avenue Studio of the Arts, through June 27.
“Continental Divide” — a pair of plays, for anyone who cares about the state of the Union, the political process, and our loss of idealism. In repertory at the La Jolla Playhouse, through August 1.
“Kid-Simple” — wildly imaginative, and just plain wild. A sound-feast and act-fest. At Sledgehammer Theatre, through July 11.
“Bed and Sofa” – quirky little musical, gorgeously designed and sung. See it, for sure! At Cygnet Theatre, through July 18.
Summer’s (officially) comin’! Celebrate at the theater.
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.