By Pat Launer
With a Misbegotten Moon, what can you do
For a Yellowman and demented Don Q?
We’ve a surfeit of these lovers and fighters
And a bevy of promising new Young Writers.
THE SHOW: Yellowman, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, was written by New York playwright Dael Orlandersmith, an African American woman. It was commissioned by Princeton ’s McCarter Theatre, where it premiered in 2002
THE STORY: Loosely based on a South Carolina family that interbred to maintain their light skin, the play concerns what Orlandersmith calls ‘internal racism’ – the mutual bias, disgust and disdain of light and dark-skinned black people. Forged in slavery, the prejudice exists today – and not only in her community. Orlandersmith is quick to point out that this type of intracultural racism exists in every culture. The play is also about the sins of the father (or mother) visited on their children – including bigotry and alcoholism. Both problems result in the dissolution of a relationship and the destruction of a family.
Dark-skinned Al ma and light-skinned Eugene grow up together, colorblind, until they become aware of the prejudices around them. Nevertheless, they fall in love, to the chagrin of both families: Al ma ’s dirt-poor, alcoholic mother and Eugene ’s uppity alcoholic parents (one light, one dark). The couple maintains the relationship after high school, even as Al ma , whose mother has always called her big and ugly, goes off to college in New York and discovers her body, her rhythm and her sexuality. But when the families come together, everything goes awry. The bourbon and the berating work their dark, twisted magic. Colorism, violence and self-loathing triumph in the end.
THE PRODUCTION: The production is beautiful in its simplicity, gorgeously designed. The deeply textured set (Nick Fouch) is an angular, monochromatic, earthtone wall of brick and wood that stretches across the stage, draped with hanging moss, slashed through by a jagged gash that exposes the mood-establishing light (Eric Lotze): orange-yellow, green, blood red.
THE PLAYERS: The language of the play is lyrical, often poetic, a mix of lilting Southern parlance and the raw, earthy, rural South Carolina Gullah-Geechie dialect. The structure becomes frustrating at times, with its alternating presentational monologues, direct interactions and multi-character portrayals. The two actors navigate the text with consummate skill, under the expert guidance of director Esther Emery. Handsome, strapping Mark Broadnax is wonderful as Eugene , a gentle soul who appreciates a good woman, and is loyal to his love. He turns dark and mean to portray his hate-filled, overbearing father and his condescending grandfather; weak and fluttery for his ineffectual mother. Monique Gaffney is scintillating as Al ma , evolving from carefree childhood and take-charge girlhood through the joys of independence and budding sexuality, blossoming in the magnitude and variety of New York . Al ma is determined to escape the small minds of her small town. Yet in the end, she is her mother’s self-loathing daughter, just as Gene becomes his brutal, bourbon-fueled father. The impact of the pervasive prejudice is profound. This extraordinary glimpse into a dark, foul corner of our society will take your breath away. It’s a fierce, fearsome and inspired evening of theater.
THE LOCATION: Cygnet Theatre, through February 11.
MOONLIGHT BECOMES YOU
THE SHOW: A Moon for the Misbegotten, the last play (1943) written by Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winner Eugene O’Neill, regarded by many as America ’s most important playwright. This is part of the 25th anniversary of North Coast Repertory Theatre
THE STORY: Many of O’Neill’s dramas were frankly autobiographical, including A Moon for the Misbegotten, The Iceman Cometh and most famously, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which chronicled the alcoholism of the men and drug addiction of the mother of the Tyrone family, stand-ins for the O’Neills. Guilt and shame abound. James Tyrone, Jr., representing the playwright’s older brother James, is introduced in Long Day’s Journey, and when we meet him in Moon, ten years later (1923, Connecticut), he’s in his final decline, a dissipated drunk who’s too far gone to be saved, though he seeks salvation in the arms and at the breast of the Earth Mother, Josie Hogan. The real James O’Neill wound up in a strait jacket, and he pretty much drank and guilted himself to death. Some of that has to do with the early death of the middle brother, for which he may or may not have been responsible. And that awful, third-act story of bringing their dead mother home from California is frighteningly close to the truth. It seems that of all O’Neill’s ‘misbegotten’ family, James was the most tormented, and the playwright was forever haunted by his memory. Moon is part epilogue to the family story, part epitaph to Jamie, an elegiac drama whose initial comic banter is prelude to the intense, poetic and transcendent third act. With its mythic tone and memorable image of Jamie sprawled across Josie’s lap, achieving the moment of peace he’s searched for all his life, the play has been called O’Neill’s Pietà.
THE PRODUCTION: Marty Burnett has designed an evocative rustic cabin of weathered wood, with a porch , a working pump and a little pen of pig-slop — perfect for pushing a priggish neighbor into, as Phil Hogan delightedly does. There’s perhaps too large an expanse of sky spread out behind tree branches. But lighting designer Michael Paolini nimbly uses it to convey the stealthy shift from night to dawn that marks the end of the evening – and the line – for Jamie and Josie. But there’s a lot of sky just hanging there the rest of the time. Jeanne Reith ’s hardscrabble costumes are just right, especially for the haughty, horsey neighbor.
THE PLAYERS: North Coast Rep artistic director David Ellenstein has assembled a stellar cast: To portray Jamie and Josie, he’s brought in two former San Diego performers, David Anthony Smith and Karla Kash (who last appeared locally in the 2001 Renaissance Theatre production of Long Day’s Journey, also directed by Ellenstein). And for the third point in the play’s pivotal triangle, Josie’s crusty, cantankerous father, Phil Hogan, he has once again employed the expertise of Jonathan McMurtry. In a comical cameo, as T. Stedman Harder, the Hogans’ rich, snooty neighbor, we’re treated to a return visit by Richard Baird (a small role for his big talent, but he makes the most of it), and Brandon Walker is fine as Mike, the disgruntled son of Hogan who, like his brothers, escapes the farm – and his father’s wrath and scorn — as fast as he can (with Josie’s help and her swift kick).
McMurtry is wonderful as the rascally Irish curmudgeon, Phil, a conniver who’s always trying to trick someone out of or into something. His accent is excellent, his humor is charming, though he isn’t quite as waspish and curmudgeonly as written, which diminishes the third-act revelation of just how much he loves his daughter and how very much he’d like her to find happiness with Jamie Tyrone. But his nasty/teasing banter with Josie is delightful. Kash is aptly earthy and raw as Josie, the Madonna/ whore (she claims to be wildly promiscuous, but these two adoring men know otherwise). Her accent comes and goes; perhaps that’s intentional? (when she’s really being herself, she’s less the tough-talking Irish farmgirl), but it’s disconcerting nonetheless. She needs to play even bigger, take up more physical and psychological space; O’Neill described her as a “giantess.” Smith deftly conveys Jamie’s cynical humor and dark despair, and he looks uncannily like the playwright in his middle years. But he doesn’t enter with the brash bravado we’d expect of a hard-drinking, hard-living womanizer. His repartee and connection with Josie are convincing, and their final moments bring depth and heart to the proceedings. But the production never rises to the level of tragedy and transcendence the play demands. With this commendable cast and their palpable commitment, it’s possible that, as the run proceeds and the play’s lyrical, elegiac tone take over, the mythic quality will be achieved in the end.
THE LOCATION: North Coast Repertory Theatre, through February 11
NOTE: Tapping into the theater zeitgeist, NCRT opens its production of A Moon for the Misbegotten just as the Old Vic announces that its production will open on Broadway in April; directed by Howard Davies, starring Kevin Spacey (who was mesmerizing on Bway in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh in 1999).
LA MANCHA MADNESS
THE SHOW: Don Quixote , a world premiere adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th century classic, written by Paul Magid, artistic director of the Flying Karamazov Brothers. Directed by San Diego Repertory Theatre artistic director Sam Woodhouse; composer/musical director: Gregg Moore. Choreographer: Javier Velasco
THE STORY/BACKSTORY: The episodic novel was a humorous and parodic take on chivalric literature , recast in the picaresque style of the late sixteenth century . It tells the story of Al onso Quexana, a middle-aged landowner who has read so many stories of chivalry that he becomes mad, convinced that he is an errant knight . Together with his sidekick Sancho Panza, the renamed ‘Don Quixote de la Mancha’ sets off on a mission to save Dulcinea del Toboso , an imaginary figure, created by the demented Don (from a neighboring farmhand) as the object of his courtly love .
Over the centuries, the novel has been interpreted in myriad ways – as comedy, social commentary or the foundation of modern literature. Magid gives it a global, cross-cultural spin, presenting “the real author of Don Quixote,” a fictional Moorish writer, Cidi Hamete Benegeli, who serves as the narrator of his comic extravaganza. The Moor disdains romantic chivalry and is even more contemptuous of Don Quixote’s Christian fanaticism and his prejudice against Moors and Jews. (Magid himself is descended from Spanish Jewish, who still speak the ancient form of Spanish called Ladino). As the Don tilts at windmills, Benegeli slips in sly political references to his time and ours, encouraging positive interactions among the races which was, in fact, a prominent feature of the Spanish empire, and may have contributed to its greatness. The problem is, Magid has too much knowledge of the history, the novel and the current multicultural morass, and he wants to cram everything in. There are far too many episodes from the novel; the plot becomes bogged down and repetitive. The Don is no longer a lovable nutcase; he has become a dangerous and compulsive fanatic. And the political jibes often take us out of the story, as do the audience asides, with their meta-theatrical references to plot, acting, Spain, the text, whatever. Add to that juggling, stilt-walking, puppetry, acrobatics and vaudeville, and what you’ve got is a ragtag hodgepodge that can’t quite figure out just how funny/serious/sarcastic/satiric/instructive it wants to be. The audience ends up confused and overstimulated (the proceedings last nearly three hours). This is, in all fairness, a premiere, which means it’s still a work in progress. And it does need more work, of the cutting, shaping and focusing variety.
THE PRODUCTION: The production has many outstanding elements, though it veers from the profound to the outrageous, the serious to the supremely silly. But the costumes (Jennifer Brawn Gittings) are especially amusing, particularly the ‘found objects’ (a plunger, a whisk) used to transform Quexana into Quixote. (Personally, I could’ve lived without the tricycles as noble steeds for the Don and Sancho, but maybe that’s just me). In order for the nine performers to create 40 characters, there’s a whole lotta cross-dressing going on, and scads of quick-change costumes. One of the most inventive is the windmills, white-clad stilt-walkers with huge arm-extensions. Brava to Brawn Gittings! Gregg Moore’s music is a delightful multicultural mix, ranging from rock, pop and hip hop to flamenco, Islamic and more. Moore and Fred Lanuza are musical chameleons, playing multiple instruments (and a few roles). For fans of the Flying Ks, there just isn’t enough juggling, though what they do is always fun (and the scarf-juggling is wonderful). The vegetable puppet show is also a high point . But there is just too much going on here; it’s hard to process it all, and after awhile, the audience stops trying.
THE PLAYERS: In the midst of the mayhem, the gifted Peter van Norden tries hard to maintain his equilibrium, even while he scales the walls, flings himself about and engages in swordplay. Actor/singer/TV host Willie G, so engaging as the Archangel Michael in La Pastorela last month, is given a really minor role as Sancho Panza, though he does get to do one rap number, vastly entertaining but grossly unconnected to the action. Michael Preston is one of the Flying K’s most talented players, and its best ad-libber (when the juggling pins drop, he’s spontaneously hilarious). Dashing Jasper Patterson plays the Barber (“a helluva good bloodletter”) and many other roles, while Jennifer Miller (a cirque performer and bearded lady) contributes impressive juggling and acting skills. Suzy Hernandez Peredo, a founding member of the San Diego Shakespeare Society, deftly plays most of the females (though the men often get gleefully into that act, most effectively as the ululating ladies-in-waiting to a Moorish princess). But the most interesting character and performance, by far, is Magid’s Benengeli (which sounds something like a mangled Chinese/English version of ‘Ben and Jerry’). He has the wisdom, the political savvy, the humor, the songs and many of the best lines. Magid is a marvel. But his imaginative creation needs to keep fewer balls in the air.
THE LOCATION: San Diego Repertory Theatre, through April 4.
THE SHOW: Plays by Young Writers, winners of the 22nd annual statewide competition, The California Young Playwrights Contest, sponsored by the Playwrights Project, founded by Deborah Salzer
THE PLAYS/PLAYERS/PRODUCTIONS: In one Wednesday morning, I was able to see the four winning plays by 15-18 year olds, and one reading by a trio of 11-12 year olds. And what a day it was! Really renews your faith in the intelligence, literacy and diverse interests of the young. The plays varied in content and professionalism, with topics ranging from rejection to job dissatisfaction. Al l are excellently performed and directed, but two stood out for their insight and incisiveness.
Once Upon a Muffin , by 11-12 year olds Sarah Hsu, Christine Li and Snow Zhu, is a young girl’s dream of escaping from an uncle who’s too busy working to pay any attention to her. On her brief, fanciful adventure, she learns to appreciate what she has. In 16 year-old Ariel Cowell’s Elevated, directed by George Yé, a disillusioned young working woman (perky Kat Ochsner) gets sympathy and invaluable job/life coaching from an elevator operator in her building (excellent Jim Granby), a man who knows a lot about her, and about the world. An unlikely, unexpected friendship develops. Lovely suggestion of a posh Manhattan elevator created by set designer Beeb Salzer The Aftermath of Cassidy Joan, by 17 year-old Katherine Quinn, directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, concerns the serious subject of divorce and child custody. Fifteen year-old Cass (very credibly played by high schooler Cindy Mersten) is torn between her parents (first-rate Craig Huisenga and Dana Hooley, as the sweet, slacker father and controlling, workaholic mother); the strong-minded teen fights to ‘keep’ her Dad, refusing to allow her Mom to push underhandedly for sole custody. A compelling little family drama which proved cathartic for the playwright, who had first-hand experience with divorce.
Thomas Hodges, age 18, also admits that his play, Stage Directions, is autobiographical. It’s cleverly written and constructed, and wittily directed by Ruff Yeager . Taylor (Marcus Cortez) is a Man of the Theater, and it’s to his old high school theater where he comes to think. We, he tells us, are “the audience in [his] head.” He’s 20 years old, trying to write a musical, suffering “a severe case of writer’s block.” His subject is love, and sitting in his old haunt makes him recall the loves of his life, and how difficult it was to connect as a lonely gay guy in high school. The cast is excellent, and the awkward first meetings with mocking Brandon (Geoffrey Yeager) and hunky Chris (Andrew Kennedy) are wonderful. The all-student audience was riveted, caught up in the angst of love, of whatever gender persuasion — a tribute to the writer, actors and director.
The play most removed from a high schooler’s experience is the most remarkable of the bunch. It reminded me of the Patté Award-winning Forty Miles from Tel Aviv, in which the young writer, Brandon Al ter, tried to get inside the head of a Palestinian suicide bomber (his winning Plays by Young Writers submission also garnered the McDonald Playwriting Award for 2003). Eighteen-year-old Los Angeles native John Glouchevitch also reached far beyond his personal frame of reference. He says his springboard was imagining the worst possible job. Now a freshman at Middlebury College in Vermont , he set The Courier during the Second World War and focused on a very young Army veteran, home from battle with an injury but no direct combat experience. Since Billy still wanted to serve his country, he was assigned the unenviable task of informing the next of kin of the death of their loved one. He’s teamed up with an older officer who insists on calling him a deprecating ‘Junior.’ Harold is just biding time till his pension kicks in, and he finagled his way into what he considers to be a fairly cushy job. He’s numb to what he’s doing, cavalierly categorizing the desperate recipients of his deadly message: The Crier, The Moaner, The Statue, The Door-Slammer. He whistles on the way to each house; he doesn’t wait around for condolences. But if there’s an invite for a free meal, he’ll go for it. As Billy (outstanding Andrew Jason Miles, a USD theater student) learns the ropes and the stilted, formal words he’s forced to say, he also acquires compassion. Brawny Joe Solazzo is perfect as his lumpish, jaded sidekick, and an ideal foil for the more diminutive and contemplative Miles. A half-dozen fine actors convey the gamut of family responses, with two compelling performances by Renée Gándola and heartrending work from Tim West and Fred Harlowt. Beeb Salzer crafted an intriguing metal arch-on-wheels that was re-positioned imaginatively, as a doorway, a car, even a casket. Brilliant invention. With it, director Stephen Metcalfe, well-known playwright and Old Globe associate artist, creates striking stage pictures, from the opening moments of Billy standing pensively alone under the arch, to the touching conclusion, when he brings all the families together to grieve communally at a gravesite, each with a rose in hand. Stunning work all around, and a powerful reminder of the costs and casualties of war, so easily forgotten in the deluge of plans and platitudes.
THE LOCATION: Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through January 21
NEWS AND VIEWS
… There’s still time for a taste of Patté: The 10th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence is online for viewing at any time. Check it out at www.patteproductions.com
.. COMING UP NEXT WEEK: The much-anticipated staged reading/singing of A Little Night Music, a benefit for Cygnet Theatre. The killer cast includes Tom Andrew, Amy Biedel, Sandy Campbell , Melissa Fernandes, Melinda Gilb, Susan Hammond, Walter Mayes, Sean Murray , John Nettles, Jeanne Reith and more. Sondheim’s gorgeous, sumptuous music takes a wry, witty look at love, loss, age and social status. Two nights only – Jan. 22 and 23 — with pre-and post-performance receptions. Tix at www.cygnettheatre.com or 619-337-1525, ext. 3#.
…PUT YOUR Nipples to the Wind and check out this funny/poignant, two-woman comedy with original music that introduces us to 14 wacky females (some of whom look like drag queens!). It’s at the Avo Playhouse this weekend, Jan. 18-20; then it comes back to San Diego , to the California Center for the Arts, Feb. 1-3. www.nipplestothewind.com
.. Join the San Diego County Office of Education and Young Audiences of San Diego for Poetry in Motion, professional development on arts instruction in poetry and dance. Tuesday, Jan. 23, 8-2:30 at the Pt. Loma Nazarene Building , 4007Camino del Rio south, Ste. 208. Space is very limited; contact Jennifer Oliver, Jennifer@yasandiego.org ; www.yasandiego.org ; 619-282-7599
.. Speaking of motion, Lower Left Performance Collective is offering its second Authentic Movement workshop, for new and experienced Authentic Movers. It will be held at Dance Space San Diego at NTC, which officially opens this weekend. Authentic Movement, wihch was inspired by Jung’s “active imagination,” coupled with indigenous traditions, focuses on inner-directed, closed-eye, spontaneous moves that integrate mind and body. January 28, 1:30-4:30pm. No prior movement experience required. Call 510-874-4955 to register in advance.
.. A Welcome Return: in preparation for the opening of David Mamet’s challenging and highly-charged drama, Glengarry Glen Ross, on Feb. 9, 6th @ Penn Theatre has invited Bryan Bevell , Mamet aficionado and former artistic director of the Fritz Theater , to join the directing team and serve as dramaturge during a brief visit from his current home in Minneapolis . Bryan, who introduced San Diegans to edgy, important playwrights like Nicky Silver, Naomi Wallace and Suzan-Lori Parks , has directed at various Twin Cities theaters, most recently winning acclaim for his production of Gangster No. 1, which he directed marvelously in San Diego in 1999. He’s about to mount a production of True West. Bryan undoubtedly will bring his wit and acumen to Glengarry, which has attracted the largest advance sales in the 6-year history of 6th @ Penn. And coming up later in February, 6th @ Penn features a local playwright, Douglas Hoen, who’s written and directs Bridges: Two Love Stories, two timely one-act world premieres that feature an Iraq war veteran and an elderly couple facing Al zheimer’s Disease.
… and another Welcome Return – the incomparable Broadway leading man, Brian Stokes Mitchell, who’ll fill Aaron Neville’s shoes (that concert was canceled) to perform with Marvin Hamlisch and the Symphony Pops, on Jan. 19 and 20 at Copley Symphony Hall. If you missed him last month at Junior Theatre, you won’t want to make that mistake again.
Al so on the 19th and 20th, Scripps Ranch Theatre is presenting a reading of Peter Shaffer’s Lettice and Lovage, a story of friendship between two middle-aged history-loving British women who refuse to take the boring path in life. SRT artistic director Jill Drexler teams up with Sandra Ellis-Troy, with other roles played by Jim Chovick and Annie Hinton. Directed by Jim Caputo. Great cast, appealing play. At the Legler Benbough Theatre on the campus of Al liant University ; no reservations needed.
… Just before press-time, I learned of the shocking death of Chris Parry, lighting designer extraordinaire, and head of the lighting design program at UCSD. The Manchester-born Parry worked his way up from apprentice to resident lighting designer at the Royal Shakespeare Company. After he moved to California , he won a Tony Award, a Dora (Canadian Tony) and an Olivier (British Tony) for the jaw-dropping lighting of The Who’s Tommy, which originated at the La Jolla Playhouse. In 2000, I gave him a Patté Award for his outstanding lighting of Love’s Labours Lost at the Old Globe. And now, this affable mega-talent is gone. A huge loss for the university — and the theater world.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
Yellowman – provocative play, marvelously designed and directed, superbly acted
At Cygnet Theatre, through February 11
Challenge Theatre: War and Quiet Flowers – an intriguing and thought-provoking theatrical experiment, featuring short plays and poems about war, wonderfully presented
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through January 24
Plays by Young Writers – a quartet of new plays by high school students, with a couple of real knockouts; all are excellently directed and performed
Playwrights Project on the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through January 21
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
It’s officially winter in San Diego (and then some!). Snuggle up for a little warmth and inspiration in a theater near you1
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