By Pat Launer
In the theater this week, there’s a sumptuous spread:
Shows to be seen, ‘Great Books’ to be read
And two with slightly different slants:
‘But Can He Dance?’ and Boy! Can they dance!
Don’t think you have to be ultra-literate to like “All the Great Books (Abridged).” You don’t have to have read any of the tomes presented (though you’ll laugh even harder if you have, or if you’ve tried). It’s all in good fun, and the creators of this mayhem, the Reduced Shakespeare Company, freely admit, onstage and off, that they themselves haven’t read ’em all, either. But if they’ve only perused the Cliff Notes, they sure learned a lot.
In the program, we get a syllabus. You see, the show is presented as a Remedial high school English class, aimed at us dolts, the ones who couldn’t pass Western lit. So this is a crash-course, and you’d better listen up. Set in a cartoonish library, books and shelves askew, “Great Books” brings on the Coach (Reed Martin), the Drama Teacher (Austin Tichenor) and an addled assistant (Matthew Croke) who asks some of the same dumb questions you or I would. A lot of writing and planning obviously went into this, but it has the feel of improv. In fact, the night I was there (one day before the official opening), several line-drops and other minor mishaps occurred, and the guys were obviously riffing on the situation, making light of it and crumpling in laughter at times. These were some of the funniest moments of the evening. Also hilarious were the ridiculously condensed versions of “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” “War and Peace” and James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”
But the most hysterical (in both senses of the word) part was the final few moments of the 2-act, 2-hour performance where [like their one-minute “Hamlet” in “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)], they sprint through about 40 of the 89 Great Books they planned to cover, summarizing each in one sentence. Sheer genius. It went by so fast it’s one section I’d love to review in print (the RSC — funny takeoff on the august Royal Shakespeare Company, also called the RSC– has become a little cottage industry, and there’s all sorts of stuff for sale in the lobby, from texts to T-shirts).
To see RSC (this RSC) once, is to get the idea. Their antic/frantic act is very similar across themes (Shakespeare, the Bible, American history). But if you relish humor, both high and low (Dickens’ “A Sale of Two Titties,” anyone???), you’re gonna love it. Me, I’m a sucker for wit based on literate or intellectual concerns; Larry, Curly and Moe never were my kind of guys. There’s plenty of slap-shtick here, too, but as I said, if you even ever HEARD of some of these books, the mishmash of pop culture, high culture and below-the-belt physicality is hard to resist. In the John Donne segment of the poetry section, for example, the timeless line becomes twisted into: “Do not go gentle into Gladys Knight.” Politics rears its ugly head, too. The “N-word” in “Huckleberry Finn” is misconstrued to be ‘Enron.’
“Stop hiding behind the flag,” says one jokester. “Why? It works for George Bush” is the comeback. And a nanosecond later,: “Are you hiding the weapons of mass destruction back there?” Then the three loonies decide whether the audience is politically with ’em or agin ’em, creating an audience-meter with their arms. The response to the Bush-jokes was mixed, but the audience, surprisingly, was with ’em enough to stand and seriously say the Pledge of Allegiance at the outset; perhaps they forgot it was a comedy, or maybe it was just the gravity of the fire-week. The RSC-men might’ve been startled, too, but they didn’t show it (though they did allow Jehovah’s Witnesses to remain seated).
You should know that the nutty triumvirate does make some distinctions between what they consider Great and not-so-great books. J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien take a drubbing (repeatedly). Maybe they just don’t like those J-initial names. And by all means, do NOT, I repeat, do NOT come late — unless you would delight in a relentless assault on your punctuality and your character. There is voluntary audience participation later, and during the intermission, you can even write down your conception of “the two greatest books and why,” which may or may not be read out at the top of the second act. The night I was there, Danica McKellar (star of “Proof” next door) suggested “1984, because I like numbers,” but they missed the humorous reference to “Proof”; guess they hadn’t been at the San Diego Rep long enough to know who their neighbors were.
Throughout the evening, the physical comedy remains (except for a few slow spots) head-spinningly speedy, and pretty funny, as the wigs, dresses and other accouterments fly. This may not be your cup of comedy; but if you like it raucous and irreverent; low-brow on high themes; loopy, goofy and loony (are those an alternate three stooges? Or were those 3 dwarves???), then Get to Class (or the Coach is gonna give it to ya’!)
THE DATING GAME
She seems to be looking for love in all the wrong places. Man # 1, 2, 3 and 4 are all dreadfully wrong for her. She’s attracted by the Bad Boy (but takes a tumble with a Bad Girl, too) and gets her heart broken repeatedly. Various mates have various traits, some good, mostly damaging or dangerous. None is relationship material. And then, there’s the dancing question.
Dorinne Kondo’s “But Can He Dance?” is a cute, clever exploration of the singles scene from the perspective of one Asian woman (named, archetypically, She) and the four disastrous men she meets at the onset of the millennium (named, as noted above, Man 1, 2, 3 and 4). She has Great Expectations (or, as the RSC-guys put it, ‘Great Expectorations’) for love and mates and what she should get or feel, how she should be treated, and how well the other person dances. She gets to do the horizontal lambada quite a bit in the show, mostly behind a scrim, bathed in red light, in a wild assortment of outrageous positions, in Anne Tran’s clever staging of the show for Asian American Repertory Theatre. There isn’t a great deal of new ground broken, but we do get to view the dating world through the eyes of a person of color, who hooks up with an angry, literate, alcoholic black man, an irresistible but irresponsible Latin lover, and a nice-guy Asian nerd. None of them lives up to her hopes or needs, some of them are downright abusive. But she, like most of us, keeps up the blindness to self and others. This is really a story of self-deception and honesty. Until truths are confronted and told, progress can’t be made. Okay, not too profound, but very well done.
Set designer Dave Weiner has reconfigured the Playhouse on Plaza (Lamb’s Players’ original space in National City) so it’s 3-sided rather than being arena seating, fully in the round. Lighting designer Kurt Doemelt follows the action with pin-spots and other little highlights of a scene here, an interaction there, and ghostly appearances of ex-lovers over there. The former partners serve as conscience, Greek chorus and four-headed, bespectacled shrink, forcing She to take a long hard look at her past and her present, so she can get on with her future. The dialogue is snappy, playing into stereotypes and then smashing them. It’s an enjoyable romp, replete with the titular dancing, thanks to choreographer/stage manager Annette Nixon.
San Diego newcomer Tiffany Loui is extremely agile, emotionally and physically; I hope we all get to see her on other stages soon, and often. Susan Hammons does a fairly convincing guy and a scary dominatrix; G. Madison, IV is spot-on as the African American writer with a ‘tude and a drinking problem; Juan Manzos is seductive as the salsa king who loves ’em and leaves ’em (but not before he dances with ’em). Jeff Lorezco is aptly sympathetic as the Asian Nice Guy (who of course, finishes last). Nobody gets the girl; but she gets back her sense of self, and though there’s no happy ending, there’s a strong whiff of personal power and optimism. Smart people, foolish choices; we’ve all been there (some are still there). Go see “But Can He Dance?” Maybe you’ll pick up a few pointers.
In “Sacred and Profane,” choreographer John Malashock paints stage pictures with all the contrast colors in his creative palette. The thematic juxtapositions comprise a 15-year anniversary celebration of projects old and new. It’s a wonderful, refreshing evening of dance, as the ever-inventive Malashock taps into his whimsy, his humor, his depth and his dark side. The works careened back and forth, from sunlight to shadows.
The opener is the Dance Suite from “Blessings and Curses” (winner of a Patté Award in 2000). The text spoken by actors brought other layers and gradations to the original, but the soulful Jewish folk-tale of a weaver losing her sight and finding inner vision still has the power to inspire. The most striking segment is the biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac, the anguished father (Michael Mizerany) forced to sacrifice his naïve and trusting son (Jake Fry) to demonstrate his faith. The paternal agony and grief are palpable; the youthful innocence is heart-breaking. And in the background, the tortured women wait and wring their hands.
Next up is the new dance-film, “The Soul of Saturday Night,” set to the Tom Waits album of the same name. The highly professional, imaginative, delectably gritty production, choreographed by Malashock and directed by John Menier (of UCSD-TV), tells the tale of two couples meeting late at night on the seamy side of town, coupling and uncoupling in steamy scenes, falling in and out of bed, love, ardor and angst . One pair is all gossamer, soft light and romance; the other’s moves are angular, angry, ambivalent, aggressive. Filmed around San Diego, from Santa Fe Station to the Aero Club and the Pickwick Hotel, the short film is a splendid collaboration, worthy of a broad audience.
Malashock’s at his very best when he works from his personal/cultural history or mines his quirky humor. When he ventures into the more ethereal and esoteric realms, the results are often less stirring and accessible. But at one moment in the world premiere, “I and Thou,” the otherworldly music of John Tavener is wonderfully counterbalanced by the dancers’ percussive noises and rhythm s, suggestive of people’s efforts to take some control in a capricious world.
The evening ends with the delicious “Love and Murder,” a 1998 work whose musical backdrop, the Murder Ballads (and other songs) of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, embodies the dichotomous nature of the evening; melodic, sweet or lilting rhythms describe brutal, deadly acts. Love becomes violent and vicious. Through the dance, the contrasts are highlighted and the humor shines through. Perfect end to a delightful evening that explores the intricate, enigmatic nature of us all.
THE ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
Malashock’s “Sacred and Profane” — wonderful array of dances, old and new, whimsical and serious, lofty and low-down; at the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla through November 9
“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
“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.
It’s awhile till Turkey Day, but after all we’ve been through, it’s high time to give thanks for what we’ve (still) got.
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.