By Pat Launer
Illness, anarchy, The American Dream;
Things aren’t always what they seem.
In “Dog Act,” the future is dotted with dangers,
Cancer becomes the destroyer in “Strangers,”
There’s sarcasm, cynicism and sass
In the gritty “Curse of the Starving Class.”
THE SHOW: “Dog Act” a post-apocalyptic vision of survival, cutthroat competition, tribal allegiances and random brutality by New York playwright Liz Duffy Adams
THE SCOOP: There’s nothing more exciting than a writer who plays, deliciously and delightedly, with structure, form, language and content. And a brand new theater company – with plenty of Moxie — that rivals her, wit for wit. A match made in post-apocalyptic heaven.
THE STORY: A wildly humorous vaudeville fable, featuring a comic/cosmic assortment of wayward travelers, each on a quest to survive in a bleak, unforgiving landscape that represents the collapse of modern civilization. Seasons change without notice. Recycling – of objects, traditions and people — is a recurrent theme. The marauding Coke and Bud wear squashed-can bandoliers, for example. And the Dog of the title is a young man who’s voluntarily undergone a species demotion. Everything is language play (though the language may be a bit coarse for some). The characters have whimsical names like Zetta Stone and Vera Similitude, and there’s JoJo , the Bald Faced Liar. Each ‘tribe’ speaks a different language or ‘dialect.’ There’s Vera’s O.E.D. erudition, and Dog’s poetic musings; Zetta speaks in a riff of hiphop and playwright Mac Wellman’s neologistic rantings. There are mixed-up mis-quotes from Shakespeare and Peter Pan and Abbott and Costello. There are songs. At the end, everyone gets more or less what s/he wants, and there’s even the faint, hopeful whiff of redemption. A wholly satisfying, slyly and comically brilliant, thoroughly inventive piece of theater.
THE PLAYERS: The cast is terrific. No exceptions. Scary-looking, shaved-head Matt Scott and trim-and-buff Brandon Walker are aptly ominous as the Scavengers, Coke and Bud, grown-up, rampaging Lost Boys looking for their Wendy. Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson is imposing as the pathological truth-teller, Vera, spouting polysyllabic, semi-meaningful mumbo-jumbo like: “When truth is told, obfuscation is required.” As her angry sidekick, Jo-Jo, Jo Anne Glover is a knockout, with her warped, monotonal retellings of fables and fractured fairy tales. Multi-talented Jason Connors, who composed, arranged, directed and plays the amiable music, portrays devoted, dependable Dog, the loyal, hapless boy who harbors a horrible secret, in which Vera will spitefully rub his pseudo-canine nose. Statuesque Liv Kellgren is marvelous as Zetta , who anchors the piece with her outrageous linguistic extravagances that always seem, somehow, to make sense (even if, somewhat less than plausibly, she’s traveling, with her gypsy wagon, from the East coast of America to a vaudeville gig in China ). It’s all so loopy, you just love going along for the wild and wooly ride.
THE PRODUCTION : Co-directors Jennifer Eve Kraus and Moxie artistic director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg have nailed the tone, tenor, humor, playfulness and dark underbelly of this wonderful and wildly imaginative piece of work. Michelle Hunt’s costumes are an ingenious marvel, as is Beeb Salzer’s remarkably convertible cart that, like a traveling Medieval wagon, opens up for a “mortality play” in the second act. So much creativity and originality went into this production; it all meshes magically, and consistently manages to capture the riotous gypsy spirit of the play.
Amusing Aside: Last year, “Dog Act” won the prestigious Will Glickman Award, selected by a panel of theater critics, and bestowed annually to the best play making its world premiere in the Bay Area. It was a well-deserved but ironic choice, because the late playwright Glickman wrote Abbott and Costello’s classic “Who’s on First” routine, which Adams weaves hilariously into her play-within-a-play. Adams was reportedly flabbergasted when she learned that the award was named after the man who wrote the timeless skit she refers to as “a priceless artifact.”
THE LOCATION: Moxie Theatre makes its auspicious debut at Diversionary Theatre , through October 23.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet, you bet!
NIGHTMARE OF THE AMERICAN DREAM
THE SHOW: “Curse of the Starving Class,” a darkly comic drama by Sam Shepard (1976), is the first play in his ‘family trilogy’ (the others are the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Buried Child” and “True West”)
THE SCOOP: Tautly directed, wonderfully acted. But symbolic and enigmatic enough that it’s not for the formulaically faint of heart
THE STORY: In a run-down rural America that has been co-opted by cold opportunists, the dysfunctional Tate family is destroyed by a genetic ‘curse’ of anger, despair and violence, coupled with the encroaching “zombies” (land speculators) who subvert and sabotage the American Dream. Over the course of three intense acts, interspersed with bleak, black humor, each character will deceive the others in order to find a modicum of personal fulfillment. Not one of them succeeds, and there is no redemption. A gritty vision of family disintegration, social violence, and a rapacious society that leaves poor farmers far behind.
THE PLAYERS – Francis Gercke, artistic director of New Village Arts, has cast and directed extremely well. Bill Dunnam, making an always-welcome return to local stages, is a powerhouse as Weston, the drunken dreamer of a father, who in the third act, makes a thrilling transformation from alcohol-fueled parasite to born-again lover of life and defender of the work ethi c. Unfortunately, his change comes too late. The wolves are already at the door. Dana Case is resolute and often amusing as the ditsy but burned-out mother who barely cares about, or notices, her kids. As those poor, pathetic offspring, Rachael Van Wormer is potent and pitiful as the rebellious adolescent who, over the course of the play, discovers her feminine bleeding and familial blood-lust. Most impressive of all is Joshua Everett Johnson’s magnetic performance as the unhinged idealist, Wesley, the son who wants to maintain the family farm and put down deeper roots. He bucks his father only to become him, ultimately shuffling onstage in his Dad’s dirty, discarded clothes. The curse is complete. In their futile search for freedom, security and connection, each family member is thwarted and beaten down. All they find is desolation and despair…. and of course, the zombies, played by Jack Missett as the smarmy, snake-eyed developer and Tom Reusing and John Garcia as various menacing, threatening cops and thugs.
THE PRODUCTION : There are many wonderful moments here (although the ending is less lethally shocking than one might hope). But the suggestive, working kitchen (set design by Cygnet’s Sean Murray) is excellently enhanced by the evocative sound design (M. Scott Grabou ) and lighting (Eric Lotze ). We truly see/hear/feel/smell Shepard’s gritty, rustic America . And it isn’t a pretty picture.
THE LOCATION: The first co-production of two gifted young companies, New Village Arts and Cygnet Theatre. At Cygnet, through November 6.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
THE SHOW: “Strangers” was written by Scripps-Encinitas OB-GYN physician Robert Biter, whose bachelor’s degree joint-major was pre-med and theater. This piece, which won seven awards at the Theatre Association of Pennsylvania festival (including best original play), marks his first return to the stage since his medical training and his first performance in San Diego.
THE SCOOP: A series of alternating, heartfelt monologues from three people who cannot connect: a doctor, his dying patient and his often-ignored wife
THE STORY: It’s not clear just how autobiographical “Strangers” is. It was written, produced, co-directed and acted by Biter, a doctor who certainly knows of what he speaks. And sharing with him the loss of a father at a young age (he dedicates the play to the memory of his Dad), and having been married to a doctor myself (in ‘a former life’), I found that the issues in the play struck very close to home. I know all about the doctor who feels vulnerable, but must put on the white coat of invincibility to hide his true feelings – in this case, from his vibrant but failing cancer patient and his patient but put-upon wife, she who gave up a career to follow him and now feels like a vestigial organ. The play doesn’t paint a very sympathetic portrait of the Medicine Man (a fine representative of what my family would dub an M.Deity ). It’s all about his hurt and pain and emotion, while the women he’s damaging day by day fall by the wayside. Disturbing picture. And it isn’t at all evident, or even suggested, that he’s learned anything at the end. His patient dies; his wife comforts him. But how has he grown or changed from this experience with a patient who really touched him, but he could never let her know? All we get is an interwoven series of interior monologues, and no one in the play gets much satisfaction at all.
THE PLAYERS: Biter, clearly playing a part close to his heart, is totally credible, even if the character is not overly admirable. Jennifer Austin is sad and lovely as the forgotten wife, who stays at home and makes do (teaching dance instead of being a dancer; afraid to have a child because then she’ll only add one more ‘possessives’ to her life: someone’s wife, someone’s mother). As the patient, Suzanne Oswald is straightforward, no-nonsense. Honest and frustrated. Going through the Kubler -Ross stages of grief, but “stuck at anger.” Her feelings about leaving her young son are heartbreaking.
THE PRODUCTION : The 50-minute piece opens with a well-made if repetitive film (production by Brandon Johnson) that introduces us to the characters – at their best. Michael, the doctor, running – or romancing his wife. Julie, the wife, working out at the barre , doing gorgeous turns ( Austin looking graceful and gorgeous); and Karen, the patient, pensively strolling the beach. Once the lights come up onstage, the three are pretty much glued to their designated spaces: an office, an attic (where Julie is cleaning out her husband’s many saved items) and a rocking chair on a porch for head- scarfed Karen. It’s attractive, and well executed, but one would hope for more interaction, more of a dramatic arc. What’s really inspiring is that all the proceeds go to Her Heart’s Wish, a national nonprofit organizations that grants the last wishes of women who have less than two years to live. The Foundation was created by Biter during his medical training, in memory of one particularly memorable patient.
THE LOCATION: At the Carlsbad Cultural Arts Center, through October 15; 633-6633.
….If you missed my cool little interview with Chita Rivera, it’s running again on KPBS-TV’s “Full Focus.” Wednesday, October 19 at 6:30 and 11pm, repeating Thursday, October 20 at 12:30pm (channel 15/cable 11). . Note that Chita ’s sellout show, which is headed directly to Broadway, has been extended a second time, through November 6, at the Old Globe. Don’t miss it!
…Sonnets R Us: The San Diego Shakespeare Society’s annual Celebrity Sonnet Presentations is scheduled for Monday, October 24 in the Old Globe Theatre. Celebs due for the readings (two each, typically) include actors Kandis Chappell, Rosina Reynolds, Ron Choularton, TJ Johnson, Seema Sueko, Dakin Matthews and Joey Landwehr . Then there’s The Cheshire Singers, not to mention KPBS’ Martha Barnette , director Darko Tresnjak, choreographer Javier Velasco, author Alan Russell, pastor Rev. Dr. Mikel Taxer , educators Diane Sinor and Jack Winans , and student actors Rebecca and Daniel Myers (ages 9 and 12). The emcee is yours truly, with stage management by David Cohen. Don’t miss it! Monday, Oct. 24 at 7pm. Proceeds to benefit the Shakespeare Society Student Festival (coming your way in 2006-7). www.sandiegoshakespearesociety.org .
.. You’ll definitely want to catch another of the usually-stellar Actors Alliance readings, “Tiger at the Gates,” Jean Giraudoux’s timely black comedy about Hector, Helen of Troy , war-mongering and mob hysteria (translated by Christopher Fry). Directed by former Globe associate director Brendon Fox, the all-star cast includes Jennifer Austin, Richard Baird, Robin Christ, Lisel Gorell-Getz, Jason Heil , Cris O’Bryon, Marc Overton, Alex Sandie , Brennan Taylor, Brandon Walker, Tim West and others. October 17, 7pm at Lamb’s Players Theatre.
… Monday, October 24, the next Carlsbad Playreaders ’ reading takes to the boards. This time, it’s Neil LaBute’s “bash,” a dark, disturbing, you-can’t-look/you-can’t-turn-away consideration of emotionless, everyday violence. Directed by Walt Jones, featuring Lisa Christensen, Candace McAdams, Mike Sears and Brennan Taylor.
…The Women’s Repertory Theatre is back… with a one-night performance of “Stripped and Teased: I Could Drink a Case of You… and other Tales,” written and performed by practicing sociologist/performance artist Kimberly Dark. A juicy and controversial contemplation of gender and female sexuality, the work has been called “forthright….honest… daring… unpretentious… powerful.” 7pm on October 23, at the newly restored North Park Theatre. 619-239-8836.
…Make a difference; make your mark. Make your voice heard in the arts community. The City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture is looking for an Arts Management Associate and Arts management Assistance. The application deadline is 5pm October 26. For info, check out http://apps.sandiego.gov/pjaol/currjob/control?view=OpenJobListing&job_category_cd=Admin (whew!!)
NOW, FOR WHAT’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (i.e., Critic’s Picks );
(For full reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
“Dog Act” – deliciously funny, wild, witty and wacky. A post-apocalyptic vaudeville fable. Linguistically lavish and artistically awesome.
Moxie Theatre premieres at Diversionary Theatre, through October 23.
“Curse of the Starving Class” – grim and gritty nightmare of the American Dream. Sam Shepard at his bleakest, with flashes of wily humor. Wonderfully performed, a highly felicitous collaboration all around.
Co-produced by New Village Arts and Cygnet Theatre; at Cygnet, through November 6.
“Dancing with Demons” – dark, intense and suspenseful, with two marvelous performances.
Common Ground @6th @ Penn Theatre, through October 16.
“The Prince of L.A. ” – a provocative peek behind the curtain of secrecy that shrouds the Catholic Church; an intriguing verse play, well written, directed and acted.
The Old Globe’ Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through October 30.
“ Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life” – like visiting with (theater) royalty. At 72, Chita still has the style, grace and ‘attitude’ she was, apparently, born with. In her singing/dancing narrative, she’s warm and lovable, gracious and irresistible. See her before she heads back to Broadway.
At the Old Globe, SECOND EXTENDED through November 6.
“In Arabia , We’d All Be Kings” – dark, intense, depressing… but beautifully performed.
At Lynx Theatre Performance Space, through October 23.
“Da Kink in my Hair” – high energy, great talent, gut-wrenching stories interspersed with singing, dancing and African drumming. This U.S. premiere needs a more pointed story-line, but it’s a foot-tappin’, hair-raisin’ experience.
At San Diego Repertory Theatre, through October 16.
“Too Old for the Chorus, But Not Too Old To Be a Star” – if you haven’t had your fill of menopausal musicals, this is great for a date (the guys remind us it’s called MENopause ). Excellent performances , some cute/clever bits and songs.
At The Theatre in Old Town , through January 1.
There’s so much to choose from, so much to see. Something unexpected is waiting for you… at the theater.
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.