By Pat Launer
It’s hard to think of performances and plays
When the world around you is all ablaze.
It’s been a horrific time for all
With fear, cancellations, and the breath-robbing pall
But theater’s a thing we can’t do without
And what’s ‘Nu’ is something to ‘Honk’ about.
Get down, honky! It’s great weather for ducks! Or should I say, Honk if you love amusing, musicals? You just have to grab a kid (or the kid inside) and waddle over to San Diego State University for the local premiere of the Olivier Award-winning musical, “Honk!” The show won the London Tony-equivalent in 2000, beating out “Mamma Mia!” and “The Lion King” (those Brits just like to reward their own!!). George Stiles (music) and Anthony Drewe (book and lyrics) met at Exeter University in the late 80s and have been collaborating ever since. They tend to revisit and tweak timeless favorites — Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, Cinderella. But they hit paydirt when they took another gander at The Ugly Duckling, originally told by Hans Christian Andersen. The source material featured the usual fairy tale complement of humiliation, masochism and misery. The poor unsightly fowl endures a plethora of hardships until he grows into swan-nirvana, and at last, earns the respect of his former tormentors. The show, with its bubbly, hummable tunes, punny lyrics and focus on the joys and perils of being Different, is truly a tale for any time, any age, anyone.
Although the other new duckies look very yellow and furry and Beatrix Potter, Ugly looks like a bespectacled, suit-wearing nerd. His father, the strutting Drake, can barely look at him, but his mother, Ida (eider, as in down??), defends him, champions him, searches the barnyard when he goes missing, and never gives up hope. That’s the way a mother hen (uh, duck) should be, right? Love conquers all — including the audience. I defy you not to get caught up in it. Especially as it’s so delightfully, deliciously acted and staged.
Director Rick Simas, a priceless staple of the SDSU Theatre Department (now part of the newly-merged School of Theatre, Television and Film), is an unsung hero about town. Hopefully, he’ll get wider and well-deserved exposure when he directs “The Fantasticks” at North Coast Rep in late winter/early spring (a production which will then go even further north, for a 3-week run at California Center for the Arts, Escondido). Meanwhile, he’s done a stupendous job with “Honk!” This is probably the most technically elaborate production I’ve seen at SDSU — all student designed — with whimsical and varying set (Torrey Hyman), seasonally changing lighting (Craig Dettman) and the most wonderful, imaginative costumes (Jennifer Hanson) since… “The Grinch” (which they vaguely resemble, with their pear shapes and wild colors). The aforementioned ducklings are downy and cuddly, and all the fowl have cute little (D.A.) tails… the Quail are big-butted, drab brown; the Crows are black-clad, cigarette-smoking, shade-wearing hoods; the Swans are in classy, all-white evening attire (gowns for the gals, tails for the guys, of course); the fowl-feasting Cat is a zoot-suit wearing pachuco; the Frogs are irresistible and hilarious… green-clad (it’s not easy being green, y’know) with inner-tube middles and frog-fin feet. Marvelous! And thanks to MFA musical theater student Alison Bretches, they all do the most adorable dances. I especially love the Frogs’ “Warts and All,” a Busby Berkeley extravaganza (including lying and standing kick-lines), which serves up the theme of the evening (“Someone’s gonna love ya, warts and all”). The singing is super, backed by the adroit musical direction of Terry O’Donnell and a lively 7-piece orchestra.
All the performances are terrific, from the adorably sad Caleb Goh as Ugly, to the solid, mellow-voiced Liz Terrel as his ever-lovin’ Mom, Ida; to Ryan McKinney (stronger of acting than voice, but very seductive as Cat); Marc Ciemowicz uproarious as both the prancing, persnickety, Drake and a hang-ten dude of a Bullfrog; Ivy Vela as blabberbill/gossip-duck Henrietta and the beautiful swan, Penny; and the well-matched duo, Jennifer Sowden and Kristen Mengelkoch, as Queenie the pampered housecat and Lowbutt, the mollycoddled house-chicken, not to mention the malleable, multi-character ensemble. There are plenty of laughs and even a tear or two. We’re all a little different, aren’t we? And even if we don’t all turn into swans, there’s some sort of transformation in everyone’s future.
IN THE NU…
Okay, let’s get naked. So said Sledgehammer Theatre artistic director Kirsten Brandt and associate artist Jessa Watson. Well, figuratively speaking. Their latest creation, “Nu,” means ‘nude’ in French. As in, stripped down. But not literally. They mean down to the bare-cones, stark naked truth. The essentials of emotion. Which, at Sledge, invariably means anger, rejection, sadness, depression.
Though these three silent pieces are imagistically beautiful (thanks to graceful, sexy lighting by David Cuthbert) the evening does not paint a pretty picture — of life, love, work, family, etc. etc. I’m no Pollyanna, but this is one dismal American portrait. Well, what can you expect? One of the pieces is based on a Sylvia Plath poem (the dark, suicidal one who is sooo much more famous after death than she was when she was alive… just ask Gwyneth Paltrow. But that’s another story for another time). Here at Sledge, the female-folk are being true to the roots of the theater, which emanated from Scott Feldsher and Ethan Feerst’s film training. It was always image uber alles. And so, reductio ad silencium, there is no dialogue at all in the present production. It’s all in the body — and the mind.
The stage pictures are often stunning, but there are long dry spells, when you’re just wondering exactly what you’re supposed to be getting/seeing/thinking/feeling. And then you might start looking around at the audience, or rolling your program, or making your non-union shopping list. Like Eveoke Dance Theatre, which comes at it from the other perspective, Sledge is blurring the line between theater and dance. Movement, bodily interaction and facial expression alone are used to express mood, story, sentiment. These are accomplished actors with disciplined bodies. Those are dancers who are politically and socially motivated to act. The two companies have even collaborated (“Sweet Charity,” 1998), though each artistic director (Brandt, Gina Angelique) pretty much stuck to her own métier. Brandt has often virtually choreographed the moves of her actors, but they also had language to propel the action. Now, it’s all in the moves. It doesn’t always work — as theater or dance — but when it does, it soars. Or should I say, in keeping with the intended theme, it’s raw and exposed? Naked emotion.
Brandt’s direction bookends the trio of 30-minute pieces. “Mr. Phosphorescent” concerns The New Girl on the job (vibrant, agile Janet Hayatshahi) aka The Supplicant, trying to figure out the ‘drill’ in a mind-numbing workplace. Amid the fake smiles, masked sameness, assembly-line action and scowling impatience, there are the usual suspects embroiled in office politics: the Corporate Climbers (Diana Sparta & Nicole Monica), the Brown-noser (a deliciously one-upping Jason Waller) and The Office Romance (Sara Plaisted). But it is The Man (wonderfully anguished David Tierney) who struggles under the weight of this crushing, energy-sapping, soul- destroying employment. His silent, agonized scream is gut-wrenching… but he manages to make his escape and survive. Not much new in the way of theatrical storyline, but an imaginative way to tell it. Some gorgeous images, projected in front of and behind a huge backlit screen (set by Anthony Gutowski).
After a brief pause (no intermissions here), we view Part II, “Echoes Traveling,” conceived and directed by Watson. All six actors are clad in white, a sad violin (sound design by Paul Peterson throughout) accompanies a woman trying to break free from a constraining past but finding no great solace in her future. She is whispered about, rejected, her life (represented in strips of paper) is torn to shreds and dropped like petals around her. She finds and loses love, friendship. She breaks down and cries. She claws her way out. She nearly drowns in blue-gray light. But something tells us she will emerge stronger for the experience. If this piece parallels Watson’s own life path, she is heading in a very good direction — both personally and professionally.
Brandt’s final piece, “Wintering,” inspired by a Sylvia Plath poem of the same name (also the name of a new Plath biography by Kate Moses), has all the Plathian elements: the bees she loved, as had her father, and the honey (in Bell Jars — wink, nudge); her abandoning father (a dapper guy in a picture frame high above the action, smiling down but moving slowly out of her life); the dictatorial Mother, the push-pull husband and of course, the dark despair, which drives her repeatedly under the table into a fetal position. Nicole Monica plays the Woman to distraction, struggling, suffering, dragging us down with her. “This is the room I could never breathe in,” says the poem (though you’d have to look it up and read it on your own to know that; it’s not provided). After awhile, we get to feel the same. The bees, Plath says, “are all women… they have got rid of the men/ The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors.” The deep, rich cello recordings and the slow, rhythmic, recurring moves lull us into the somnambulance the Woman probably longs for. It’s a dark end to a disturbing evening; we’ve definitely seen a different view of life and of theater. And perhaps it makes our little lives look that much better by comparison.
THE ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
NOTE: If you’re planning to see ANY shows this week, be SURE to check with the box office about cancellations, postponements or added performances.
“Honk!” – delightful, inventive production; fun for the whole family! At SDSU through November 2
“Oedipus Tyrannus” — lyrical, crystalline translation by Marianne McDonald; outstanding performances; at 6th @ Penn through November 2
“Homebody/Kabul” — well worth the trip to L.A…. Tony Kushner is the genius — and conscience — of the American theater; politics, humor and introspection, beautifully done in this Steppenwolf production; at the Mark Taper Forum through November 9
“The Boys Next Door” — wonderful performances, touching and often humorous play; at Lamb’s Players Theatre; EXTENDED through November 23
“Proof” — thought-provoking Pulitzer Prize-winning play; at San Diego Repertory Theatre; EXTENDED to November 2
“Annie Get Your Gun” — delightful production with two great leads and wonderful costumes; at the Lawrence Welk Resort Theatre, through November 8
“Beehive” — one of San Diego’s longest-running musical hits, is closing soon; all those great girl-group songs; irresistible! At the Theatre in Old Town, through January 4 only.
I hope we all can get back to some semblance of a normal life soon — where high drama is only onstage.
Stay well, stay safe and don’t breathe too deeply,
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.