By Pat Launer
Lots of great theater these Midsummer nights:
Titus and Othello take their murderous flights
Iphegenia ’s sad lament
Is echoed by bohos who can’t pay their Rent.
THE SHOW: TITUS ANDRONICUS, Shakespeare’s earliest attempt at tragedy (c. 1590), which was the single most popular play in Shakespeare’s theatre during his lifetime.
THE BACKSTORY: This is a ‘revenge play,’ which features many of the characteristics and conventions Shakespeare later perfected in Hamlet: supernatural elements, a circuitous route to playing out the vengeance, and a revenger who seems mad – and must die at the end.
THE STORY: The aging Titus returns to imperial Rome after a victorious war against the Goths, bringing a load of captives that includes the monstrous Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and her three sons, one of whom is murdered right at the top of the show (a sacrifice Titus feels will appease the souls of the slain members of his family). Saturninius, one of two competitive brothers in a power struggle, is declared Emperor through Titus’ intercession, and he claims Titus’ daughter Lavinia as his wife. His brother, Bassianus, however, abducts Lavinia, to whom he was betrothed. Saturninius turns around and weds Tamora, who’s sworn to avenge her son’s death. Tamora and her Moorish lover Aaron unleash a series of ruthless, heinous acts, including the murder of Bassianus and two of Titus’ sons , and the rape of Lavinia, followed by the cutting off of her hands and tongue. Meanwhile, Titus’ third son, Lucius, is banished, and he aligns himself with the Goths to return and battle Rome . Titus, half-mad and determined to exact his own revenge, kills Tamora’s sons and serves them up to her for dinner. Just about everyone ultimately bites the dust, and only Lucius survives to tell the tale, and be proclaimed Emperor.
THE PRODUCTION: Director Darko Tresnjak knew that playing the whole thing straight, with its endless array of horrific violence, would be either unwatchable or laughable. So he beat the audience to the punch, making a great deal of the proceedings comical, in a fresh and inventive way, while still maintaining the few tender moments and the brutal truth about the senseless devastation of vengeance. The timing of the message couldn’t be clearer; but just in case you miss the point, Tresnjak dresses two members of a hunting party in a cowboy hat and an orange decoy vest. Theater is at its best when it makes its socio-political points subtly, or humorously, and Tresnjak doesn’t miss a trick. From the first strains of “Comedy Tonight” before the lights come up, you know something altogether different is afoot (though it was precious and repetitive to use the same joke/song at the top of the second act). Musical quotes from Chicago (“He Had It Coming” during a murder – also, alas, repeated to diminishing comic effect) and the Beatles (“I Wanna Hold Your Hand” when limbs are being hacked off).
There are many dazzling stage pictures, thanks to the scenic design of Ralph Funicello, the wonderful costumes of that wizard Linda Cho (who’s collaborated with Darko several times before, to outstanding effect), the excellent lighting of York Kennedy and the evocative (and amusing) sound design of Christopher R. Walker (everything from songs to chainsaws). The cannibalistic scene is handled wonderfully, as the snootily suited Emperor and Empress sexily feed each other sushi morsels that turn out to be Raw Son. Even worse than the text’s meat-pies. Most striking is the many imaginative ways that blood is symbolically represented: from the most wickedly realistic throat-slitting of the first scene to red sparkly confetti; from precisely, beautifully and heart-stoppingly poured red sand (out of the gaping wrist-sockets of Lavinia) to red ribbon-streamers, to the stunning red fans that snap open in unison in the gorgeously stylized final mass death scene. Violently breathtaking.
THE PLAYERS: As the titular Titus, Leonard Kelly-Young starts out quite flat (war-weary?) and monotonal. But as the bodies pile up, he becomes, by turns, heartsick at the death and destruction of his family, kind of merrily mad and finally, wildly energized by the heady vengeance. As Marcus Andronicus, brother of Titus, Charles Janasz brings real heart to the proceedings, elevating the production from the history, politics and glee of gore; his attempt to bind his niece’s bleeding stumps with his own shoelaces is genuinely stirring. In all his repertory roles, Janasz brings honesty, credibility and compassion. As the sons of the Emperor, Saturninius and Bassianus, Wynn Harmon and Karl Kenzler make for elegantly sleazy, officious bureaucrats. J. Paul Boehmer, so buff and imperious as Oberon in Midsummer, makes for a vigorous Lucius (son of Titus). Celeste Ciulla, potent as Emilia in Othello, is big-voiced and brazen, a slick-and-sexy, nefarious Queen of the Goths. Her sons (Michael Urie, Michael A. Newcomer) are interpreted as modern-day Goths: pot-smoking, baggy-wearing, slacker punks. Lavinia (Melissa Condren) is beautiful and icy before her disaster; heartbreaking afterward (though her charades-like scene of trying to communicate is amusingly played for laughs). Owiso Odera ( so light, spry and funny as Lysander in Midsummer) seems to lack the gravitas and malevolence for the malicious Aaron.
Because of its relentless, outrageous violence, you don’t get to see this play that often (there are two productions in New York this summer). Tresnjak has made it surprisingly funny and shockingly relevant. Don’t miss it.
THE LOCATION: On the Globe’s Festival Stage, in repertory with Midsummer and Othello, on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through September 30
BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
THE SHOW: OTHELLO, Shakespeare’s great tragedy of love and jealousy (c. 1604)
THE STORY: Othello, a Moorish general in the service of Venice , appoint Cassio as his chief lieutenant, unwittingly arousing the enmity of his ensign Iago, who thinks he has a better claim to the post. Partly to avenge himself for the slight, and partly out of sheer malice, Iago devises a scheme to undo both Cassio and the unsuspecting Othello, who regards his ensign as a loyal, trustworthy friend. Iago convinces Othello that his new bride, Desdemona, has had an illicit relationship with Cassio. Othello’s rage spirals out of control, and he strangles Desdemona in their bed. When Iago’s wife, Emilia (Desdemona’s faithful servant) denounces her husband and reveals his machinations, Othello kills himself, and Iago is dragged off, vowing never to speak again.
THE PRODUCTION/ THE PLAYERS: To underscore the timelessness of the play, director Jesse Berger and costumer Linda Cho present it in modern-day dress. Iago is a suit-wearing man’s man, a hail-fellow-well-met kind of guy. He doesn’t appear sly or slimy at all. But when he confides in the audience, he relishes his evildoing, smirking and proud of each ensnaring chapter of his elaborate, destructive trap. Karl Kenzler is terrific; like any sly businessman, he works his wiles in super-subtle ways. He is the Venetian Ken Lay; he sees nothing wrong with what he’s doing, even if it seems a gross overreaction to the rebuff he has suffered. He is relentless, insidious, and chilling. As the unsuspecting Moor, Jonathan Peck is dignified, noble and gallant, if lethally credulous. Both his anger and anguish are palpable (and his seizure is quite credible, too). Julie Jesneck, who’s hilarious as a geeky Helena in Midsummer, really gets to show her dramatic range, making Desdemona a graceful, loyal if not forceful woman, who fights to stay alive (even as she’s being smothered) but is faithful and fond to the end. Michael A. Newcomer (funny as Snug the joiner in Midsummer and entertainingly dim as the Goth Demetrius in Titus) is vigorous and sincere as Cassio. Celeste Ciulla (beautifully gruesome as the murderous Tamora in Titus) is robust and thoroughly convincing as the faithful Emilia (well, faithful to Desdemona, anyway – and to the truth). The scenic and design elements work well. This production doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s a clearly spoken, well acted retelling of an enduring story.
THE LOCATION: On the Globe’s Festival Stage, in repertory with Midsummer and Titus Andronicus, through October 1
BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
CLAP IF YOU BELIEVE IN FAIRIES
THE SHOW: A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, Shakespeare’s comedy (c. 1594) about the vagaries of love and “what fools these mortals be ”
THE STORY: Plans are in the offing for the wedding of Theseus, duke of Athens , and the Amazon queen Hippolyta, whom he has defeated in battle. Egeus, an Athenian, has promised his daughter Hermia to Demetrius, and though she is in love with Lysander, the duke orders her to obey her father. The two lovers plan an escape to the forest, and are followed there by Demetrius and the woman who adores him, Hermia’s close friend Helena. The quartet is discovered by Oberon, king of the Fairies, his queen, Titania, with whom he is extremely irritated, and the merry fairy prankster, Puck. The use of a magic plant love-potion results in crossed connections and general mayhem (including the turning of Bottom, the weaver, into an Ass with whom Titania falls desperately in love). Finally, at the three-way wedding, Bottom and his band of blundering players perform, to great mirth (on and off the stage) the tragedy of “Pyramus and Thisbe.”
Note: The story of Theseus and Hippolyta also appears in Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale,” and the “tragicomical comedy” of Pyramus and Thisbe is a burlesque of the story in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.”
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Darko Tresnjak opens his production to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance.” The four young lovers, in cap and gown, are graduating. Hermia’s father, Egeus (played silly/crabby by Wynn Harmon) seems to be the private school’s headmaster. He takes his plight to Theseus, wherein the play’s dialogue begins. It’s an interesting take on the play, but it doesn’t really add any new insight. The adolescent angst of these callow youths is otherwise conveyed throughout. But this approach is attractive and clever and unexpected. The costumes (Paloma Young) for the ‘students’ are school blazers with spiffy gold insignias. Theseus and Hippolyta and their entourage are really amusingly dressed – in bright red hunting outfits. Hippolyta, the Amazon warrior, sports jodhpurs, a black helmet, an eye-patch and a riding crop that she snaps repeatedly against her leg – or at Theseus, displaying overactive machisma. She won’t be ruled by this man, that’s for sure. She pleads Hermia’s case, and pouts angrily when she doesn’t get her way; you know just where she’s gonna take it out on ole Theseus. J. Paul Boehmer (steadfast as Lucius in Titus) doesn’t register strongly as Theseus, but he makes for a deliciously muscular, virile Oberon, very regal, truly irresistible. Eve Danzeisen is cute and feisty as Hermia, but Julie Jesneck (a lovely if extremely pliant/compliant Desdemona in Othello) nearly steals the show as a nerdy, bespectacled Helena , with her barretted stick-straight blonde hair and a whiny demeanor. Owiso Odera is nimble and agile as Lysander, in contrast to David Villalobos’ intentionally klutzy Demetrius (but late in the play, how is it that Lysander can’t catch up to Demetrius in a chase?). Eleven year-old Michael Drummond makes for a sprightly Puck, though he rushes some of his lines. His physical business (making fun of Oberon behind his back) is especially cute. The Rude Mechanicals are the most disappointing element of the production, but only in part. Charles Janasz (wonderful in all three Shakespeare plays) is a nervous, fussy and funny Peter Quince. Michael Urie goes amusingly over the top as Flute playing Thisbe. Chip Brookes, Michael A. Newcomer and Dan Hodge provide good support. But Jonathan Peck ( so very fine as Othello) just doesn’t have the comic chops for Bottom, the play’s normally side-splitting role. He isn’t particularly humorous when he’s wearing the (attractively designed) donkey’s head. And he’s singularly unfunny as the should-be-uproarious Pyramus. The overall design of the production is attractive, though I did miss seeing even the slightest suggestion of forest in the forest. But the jaw-dropping Art Deco look of the Female Fairies nearly made up for that; some of those eye-popping stage pictures could’ve been created by Erté. The production had a good deal of creative and youthful energy, but the lack of humor in Shakespeare’s most amusing moments make it less than stellar overall.
THE LOCATION: On the Globe’s Festival Stage, in repertory with Othello and Titus Andronicus, through September 29.
VIVE LA VIE BOHÈME!
THE SHOW: RENT, the late Jonathan Larson’s beloved legacy, winner of 3 Tonys (Best Musical, Book and Score) and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama
THE STORY: The rock version of “La Bohème” has strong San Diego connections. The original was directed by Michael Greif, former artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse. And now, in the current touring production, Warren G. Nolan, a native son and graduate of the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, plays the lead role of Collins. Ironically, this whole tour is called the Collins Tour (each of the touring productions is named for a character). The home-team went wild on opening night – for Warren and for the whole show. There were many groupies (Rent-heads) in the audience and they started screaming before anything happened; they were that hopped up for the production. And a fine one it was, one of the best road companies of the show I’ve seen. The energy and enthusiasm were high, as was the talent level.
The story concerns a bunch of ‘bohemians’ (read: starving artists) living in lower Manhattan (‘ Alphabet City ”). They haven’t paid their rent in a year, and even though he used to be their roommate, Benny the landlord is about to evict them. Mark, a budding filmmaker, is shooting everything that transpires. His roomie Roger has AIDS and is still pining for the girlfriend who gave it to him…. until Mimi walks through the door and asks him to “light her candle.” She’s a junkie dancer at an S&M club and also has AIDS. Meanwhile, Collins, a techno-whiz, is beaten up outside their apartment on Christmas Eve, but he’s helped and healed by the sweet, loving drag-queen, Angel (who has AIDS, too). Mark is still semi-attached to his ex-girlfriend Maureen, who dumped him for the lawyer Joanne. The show is “a year in the life” (c. 1980s) of this ragtag but talented group of friends. The AIDS crisis may be a little less acute in the U.S. today, but people are still dying all over the world and there are still plenty of poor artists and squatters in New York being ousted from their meager living spaces.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The players were having quite a bit of trouble with the miking and sound system on opening night at the Civic Theatre. Roger, in fact, had to be given a hand-held for awhile. Many of the lyrics were garbled; you were outta luck if you weren’t familiar with them (a good deal of the audience was). Most clear and comprehensible was Mark (Jed Resnick, currently on leave from Brown University ), who is endearing and agile, and vocally strong. As Roger, Bryce Ryness sings well but doesn’t exude much personality – or much connection to Mimi. And when he sings, his facial contortions often contradict the emotion he’s supposed to be expressing (e.g., he looked like he was smiling during the most melancholy numbers). Ano Okera is delightful as Angel, and he deftly manages those floor-to-table jumps that are the signatures of the role. In this production, Roger and Mark also make the big table-leap. As Mimi, Arianda Fernandez was Gumby-flexible and very sexy (her ultra-slim body is lithe, supple and sensuous). Her voice is fine, though she couldn’t really muster a powerful howl in her knockout number, “Out Tonight.” Chante Carmel Frierson is forceful as Joanne, and Tracy McDowell is fun as Maureen, but not as funny as many others in her goofball performance art piece, “Over the Moon.” The audience was happy to “Moo” along with her nonetheless. For the hometown crowd, Nolan delivered the vocal goods, and then some. He’s in excellent voice – pure, sweet, rangy and especially gut-wrenching in the gospel-infused “I’ll Cover You” reprise. But between his floppy dreads (in which he looks great!) and his tendency to face upstage, he was often the hardest to understand. The crowd loved him just the same.
The set (designed by Paul Clay) seems to be, if memory serves, a more intricate tangle of chain link, metal stanchions and slum detritus than before. This look was groundbreaking when the show premiered a decade ago, but now (especially locally, after several such designs at the La Jolla Playhouse), it doesn’t look unique at all. Same goes for the concert-mics that were so novel when the show initially opened. Now everyone is miked for everything, so no big deal (except when the mics don’t work). The costumes — including Mark’s striped scarf, Mimi’s seemingly painted-on, ultra-tight plastic pants and Angel’s wild Christmas outfit, with black-and-white patterned tights — are exactly as expected, and worn quite well.
The production is great – for the Rent neophyte or as a refresher. There’s a lot to love, with a talented, enthusiastic and agile cast and a still-relevant pre-millennial message about fighting for what’s right and appreciating what you’ve got.
THE LOCATION: Broadway San Diego at the Civic Theatre, through July 16.
WAR IS HELL
THE SHOW: IPHIGENIA AT AULIS , a Euripides tragedy written in about 405 BC (completed by the playwright’s son and premiered after Euripides’ death in 406).
THE BACKSTORY/ THE STORY: The play was written in the waning years of the Peloponnesian War, just before the final defeat of the Greeks by the Spartans. As translator/scholar Marianne McDonald often reminds us, Euripides was the greatest anti-war playwright of antiquity. This was a plea for peace, a searing symbolic drama that shows how young people are always war’s first and most violent victims; self-serving leaders willingly sacrifice the young for their own glory.
At the outset of he play, the seer Calchas has proclaimed that only the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter will save the Greeks from remaining trapped by unfavorable winds in the harbor at Aulis . Agamemnon sends for Iphigenia, pretending that he is going to marry her off to the heroic warrior Achilles. Clytemnestra begs her husband not to kill his own daughter, and Achilles offers to protect and save her. But Agamemnon cannot be budged, and Iphigenia nobly agrees to sacrifice herself for the good of Greece .
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: McDonald’s translation is crisp and clean, modern and thoroughly comprehensible. Except for some overly rapid line readings, the text is spoken with clarity and credible emotion. Director Douglas Lay has assembled an impressive cast, and enlisted the prodigious talents of Leigh Scarritt to compose and arrange the poetic and incendiary words of the Chorus of young women. This proves an excellent choice; the five young women convey the sentiments of the populace (and the battle-groupies); they react excellently to the action. Under Lay’s expert direction, their singing and movement work wonderfully. The girls make light of war and death (in one striking moment, they nonchalantly play catch with a grenade). The dress is military (intentionally from all over the map) — except for the passionate Clytemnestra (marvelous, regal Robin Christ) who wears a power suit but is, in this bellicose, testosterone-driven world, powerless. Ruff Yeager is imposing, arrogant and well spoken as her husband Agamemnon, the Greeks’ commanding officer, the one who agonizes briefly and then callously proceeds to promote his own potential hero status by sacrificing his young daughter. Yeager’s portrayal is deep and rich; his articulation is precise and crystalline. But even he, at times, rushes the lines, as do many of the others. Rhys Green goes head to head with Yeager as Menelaus, King of Sparta, another unsavory leader, though he’s more concerned with sexual conquests than military ones. All he wants is the return of his beautiful wife: Helen, whose kidnapping by Paris started the whole conflagration. In a scene that deftly exposes the ruthless barrenness and cruelty of rulers, the two men go at each other like a pair of rabid dogs, accusing each other of heartlessness, selfishness and ineptitude. Both, as it happens, are correct. Talented young Michelle Cabinian, a budding high school sophomore, nobly plays Iphigenia. Hers is definitely a Face to Watch.
There are many delights in this spare, Spartan production. And in considering pointless wars and needless death, we need look no further than our own backyards.
THE LOCATION: At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through August 6.
… Hey, Actors! Are you aware of TheAuditionDatabase, an audition site that currently has more than 2200 audition notices from around the country? The site allows for a title search (you can look for a specific production) as well as selective filtering for gender, age, state or category. The categories include actor, singer, dancer, musician, model — even cheerleader and Reality TV. Best of all, the site is free and doesn’t require registration. Check it out at www.theauditiondatabase.com . Suggestions for improvement welcome.
…. The Coronado-based Classics for Kids has just been named “Emerging Business of the Year” by the San Diego regional Chamber of Commerce (in the Micro Business category). The group, with its own Classics Philharmonic (under the direction of conductor Dana Mambourg Zimbric), is devoted to providing affordable, accessible, professional and educational concert performances for students and families all over San Diego county. The 13 year-old organization, headed by founder/executive director Marion Sciré, was recognized for its growth, success and dedication to providing community solutions to the growing problem of lack of arts education in the public schools.
.. Don’t forget the Actors Festival, opening July 19 and running through the 30th. 35 plays, 6 different programs, 90 participants. Tons of fun. At the Lyceum.
… Put it in your calendar in ink: playwright Athol Fugard and writer/scholar Marianne McDonald in a fund-raising reading of Medea the Beginning by McDonald … Jason the End by Fugard. Proceeds will benefit 6th @ Penn Theatre. Sunday, August 27 only. 7:30pm. $50 donation. 619-688-9210.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Critic’s Picks)
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Rent – energetic, enthusiastic touring production that features excellent talent, including a local in a leading role
At the Civic Theatre, through July 16
Titus Andronicus – a lot of political references and many laughs along with the gore; as director Darko Tresnjak puts it, his production is “bloody good fun!”
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through September 30
Othello – potent production. robustly acted and directed
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through October 1
Iphigenia at Aulis – modern production and translation make the well-presented play timeless and politically relevant
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through August 6
Collected Stories – fascinating, fact-based premise about writers and stories and who owns what; superbly performed
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, through August 13
Mother Courage – still one of the most potent anti-war statements around; beautifully, simply, elegantly presented
At the La Jolla Playhouse, through July 23
Amadeus –a great story (whatever part of it is actually factual), very well presented by a fine, committed, beautifully dressed cast
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through July 23
In honor of Bastille Day, storm your local theater!
© 2006 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.